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The Deaths Of Game Narrative

August 5, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

It's been quite a year for epic, narrative-driven games -- titles vast in scope, grand in ambition, and gorgeous in execution -- and I have fought my way through a few of the best.

In recent months I have transformed into an exiled Florentine nobleman thirsty for vengeance in Renaissance Italy; I masqueraded as a continent-hopping, chiseled chunk of vainglorious derring-do in search of lost treasure; and I traveled the western wilds of the United States as a battle-scarred loner fighting to restore his dignity and return to his family.

To the ear of an outsider, this might sound like a pretty diverse scrapbook of experiences, and I'd say this was half right. But there's one element that draws all these titles together under a cozy umbrella. In each game, the protagonist -- my avatar -- is a mass murderer.

Perhaps this is an unfair choice of words. After all, the moral compass of these men points true. But no man in the history of our real world has more bodies on him than Ezio Auditore, Nathan Drake, or John Marsten*. The cold fact is, these guys are efficient and prolific killers.

They have murdered dozens, if not hundreds, more people than they have befriended. And why? Because it's so damn fun, son. Killing is an activity games actually seem to encourage, since it is perfectly suited to the computational aspect of a game's mechanics. Death is a Boolean operation: something is either alive or not-alive, which makes determining victory conditions easy. Are you dead? Then you have lost. Is your opponent dead? Then you are winning; keep it up.

Take a quick survey of most game mechanics based on real-life activities and you'll find this same criterion in effect in almost all cases: the conditions for success are always clear and decisive. Jumping, punching, racing, shooting, and pulling switches are all activities that can be scored or measured with a high degree of certainty.

Violence has the added benefit of being a clear indicator of conflict, so it shouldn't surprise us that killing has been so widely adopted as a primary game mechanic. This has been the trend for centuries, really. Chess and Go got the ball rolling when their rules insisted we "capture" our opponents. It was only a matter of time before we started killing them outright and leaving their bodies to, well, fade.

This remains a touchy issue, but I don't have too many ethical reservations with our present reliance on violence as a mechanic -- judging by its ubiquity and utility, it seems to have chosen us, rather than the other way around.


Red Dead Redemption

So What's the Problem?

What I do worry about, however, is the creeping damage this exaggerated quantity of killing has inflicted on the strength, quality, and seriousness of so many game narratives. Murder is making bad storytellers out of us all. Due in large part to their fast drift towards narrative realism, far too many modern video games are now suffering from split personalities, divided between the broad and sensitive stories we watch and the blunt, violent stories we create through play.

In all three of the games alluded to above, the storylines are well-written, often subtle, and chock-full of emotional intensity. But when it comes time for the player to engage the game, these narrative highs and lows are obliterated in favor of a much smaller and more stylized range of possible expressions: run, ride, jump, dodge. Kill or be killed.

While it is true that Assassin's Creed II and Red Dead Redemption take great care to highlight their protagonists' distaste for killing, the sheer scope of the in-game violence reduces these caveats to mere lip service in much the same fashion that the anti-spectacle message at the heart of the film Gladiator is undermined by the film's reliance on violent spectacle to carry the drama.

If we cannot overcome this persistent contradiction, game narratives will remain difficult to take seriously, for even as these stories get more serious, the gameplay remains ludicrously indulgent.

In life and in all the best literature and cinema, death is usually an unfortunate and tragic event, and in most cases represents a great loss or failure. But in games -- unless it befalls a character in a cutscene -- death is as common and impactful as a sneeze, and is usually a cause for celebration. It's a triumph of one will over another. What are players to think when a game tries to have it both ways -- a weighty, tragic story and a bloody good time?

For starters, we can mitigate this problem by creating a more stable synthesis between story and gameplay, infusing the game's mechanics with broader narrative utility. Sadly, this is easier said than done. Surveying the present scope of game mechanics already on offer, there seems to be a self-imposed limit to what sort of human activity developers are willing to transform into actual gameplay.

If a designer wanted to make a game called Terminal Relations, say, in which the only goal was to comfort your pious, cancer-stricken grandfather in his final days, she'd probably have a difficult time designing the actual challenges. Matters of emotion, morality, empathy, religion, cultural identity, and the like, are difficult to translate into iterative mechanics because they are primarily psychological or interior phenomena with no clear victory conditions.

Though it sounds unrealistic, Airtight Games' Kim Swift undertook a similar challenge at this year's Experimental Games Workshop with Karma. Note the word "experimental", of course.

When a game wants to inject some pathos or philosophy into the proceedings, it's usually handled in a cutscene. Over the decades, this restriction has had the unfortunate consequence of splitting the interests and priorities of game designers and game writers into separate camps -- often working in tandem, but rarely on the same problems.

Some symptoms of this split have been noticed over the years, although their cause has not always been correctly diagnosed -- as this Kotaku article claims:

Most video games are "written" after they're completed. Writers are usually brought on board to write dialogue and exposition. Only people who don't understand what writers do would think this is an acceptable use of writing talent.

This is a rather sweeping indictment, but it's only partially correct. Although this does happen, few of our most celebrated games are made so carelessly. Rockstar, Bethesda, Ubisoft, Naughty Dog, BioWare, Valve, and others clearly craft their narratives in conjunction with their design teams.

And as an internal writer for Foundation 9 Entertainment, I have been equally fortunate to start on day one of most of my projects. But there is a definite problem to be addressed: game writing is often sub-par, clumsy, and badly integrated even under seemingly ideal conditions. Why is this?

---

*At last count my John Marsten had killed 910 people, 74 percent of the way through Red Dead Redemption. This makes Billy the Kid (rumored body count: 21. Actual: approximately 4) look law-abiding by comparison.


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Comments


Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Good article! The avatars of these many games are as you stated mass murderers, but only as a side effect because gameplay and progression requires us to shoot/slash/stab/explode our way through the levels or maps. Killing is basically the core mechanic as it is to position blocks in Tetris. Death is a boolean value. LOL. You speak my mind right there.



This portion triggered an idea:

"The fact that it is possible to play BioShock and ignore most of its story should clue us in that this is not an indispensable element."

So if BioShock's setting is ignorable, which brings the disconnect and undermines the "meaning" of the game itself...the logical solution would be to sort of force the player to think about the theme, the world view communicated with the setting of Rapture, in order to progress through the game.



What I mean is this. You say that BioShock is about surviving and killing your enemies, while the story is

only setting. The story and the setting (getting to know Rapture, and the philosophy/point of view of its creator) are not essential for the enjoyment and progression of the game. What if the designers actually made it essential for the player to understand the way the creators think, in order to solve a particular dilemma (a puzzle in a grander scheme which is also an integral part of the plot)?

This would mean that the game actually "teaches" us about people's world views back in the 60s (correct me if I'm wrong), for instance.

Carlo Delallana
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The other thing that needs to be considered is the production environment that could foster such tight integration between narrative and gameplay.



Tim Carter wrote an opinion piece about challenging some known conventions in game development funding. Simply put, the production structure that we have right now makes this "bright future" difficult to achieve.



http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/29442/Opinion_Why_ProjectBased
_Game_Budgeting_Could_Work.php

Leonardo Ferreira
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A possible solution for these questions would be if the one responsible for the development of the game storyline (not the writing, or the game text; the story themes, events and overall message).should be the game designer himself .Of course, it would need a specially bright indivuidual to effectively manage two tasks as complex as these are, not to mention the improbability of doing so in a highly subdivided enviroment like game development is, but the end result would probably be much more coherent, if the gameplay and storyline could be created in parallel, in opposite to being constantly rebuilt one in function of the other.

Ernest Adams
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Good article.



Most of the writing is sub-par because most designers and producers and, perhaps most of all, level designers don't respect its role.



In the early 90s I spent a lot of time warning people that Hollywood was going to try to take us over, and they would destroy the industry by producing a lot of over-produced, narrative-driven, low-interactivity junk that nobody would buy, i.e. "interactive movies." Fortunately, they didn't try very hard, so we only got a few expensive disasters, not enough to destroy the industry.



However, a downside of this was that once they went away again, we were back to square one so far as writing was concerned.



I'm convinced that writing can be improved. To make this happen, the writer must be an equal partner on the design team, with the power to influence the shape of the game for the sake of the story. She has to have their respect and cooperation. People who don't enjoy story in games should not be employed to build games that have stories in them.



The writer must also be a GAME writer, not a wanna-be novelist or screenwriter. She has to understand about manifold plots and the need to give freedom to the player and all that kind of thing.

wes bogdan
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Back when i was playing steel battalion if you didn't eject in time or couldn't get more mech's it was game over-FOR REAL because the game save was wiped and have fun starting all over.



Realistic sure but fun,not so much because if this were applied to bioshock,red dead,dragon age or any

videogame where you really did die with no reset and try again people would stop playing.



Realisim is nice but when it detracts from the enjoyment your game is too realistic.



Guns can jam but only the player runs out of ammo our enemys might need to reload but they've got an infinite number of rounds/grenades until we kill them then we get a half or nearly emty weapon and sometimes no grenades. Funny that though i know it's all in the challenge /skill of overcoming the enemy's

but without the fancy trappings of narrative and story you could break most gameplay down to skiiball or other skill based contest.

Tadhg Kelly
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We've been hashing through a whole lot to do with story and games in another thread:



http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/29642/Film_Director_Del_Toro_D
eveloping_Video_Games.php



Also, gama, you really need a forum. These discussions tend to drift away from the front page too quickly.

Thomas Grip
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Great article! I think it brings up some very important issues!



Personally, I do not think that that story and gameplay as we know them in games will produce anything but genocide-simulators. To bring deeper themes/meanings into games, I think we need to rethink what we videogames can be and how to engage players. The tools used right now simply do not cut it if we want to add more varies emotions and subjects.



In case anyone is interested I wrote a blog post about it a while ago:

http://frictionalgames.blogspot.com/2010/01/how-gameplay-and-narr
ative-kill-meaning.html

ian christy
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I love when an article brings all the blog post links out, noice!



Rather than add anything deep, because I need to soak on this a bit, I would like to mention one thing speaking directly to the Red Dead & Fallout sort of parallel lives that the protagonist and the player experience through game play and through story.



It's funny that while true, there is an inherent schism between my 3k plus body count exploring around the landscape, and the choices and efforts I make progressing the story as a mostly lawful good protagonist I can, the schism doesn't bother me much. As a player, I accept, if not wholeheartedly embrace, that there are two experiences that exist interdependent, yet with different goals and rewards.



What does drive me nuts, GTA San Andreas I'm looking squarely at you, is when I've run around being a wicked bad ass, and encounter a cinematic story element hands me my ass in a context that in normal game play I could / would have likely / easily surmounted. When the narrative violates the game play experience, the schism becomes apparent, the parallel lives / agendas at odds, and my meager suspension of disbelief is threatened.



I commend anyone trying to create and empower a richer, deeper, more better luscious story to tell. I would encourage them to also look at the narrative the player creates for themselves as they play, the stylistic and exploratory choices they make, and see if the two agendas of crafted / written story and emergent / game play story can mutually support one another, feed one another, empower one another (to use that word again) and give the player a multi-tiered experience that's rewarding on multiple levels (pardon the pun).



e

Charles Stuard
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@ Ian



I think Fallout gets a pass because it's a post-nucleic world, and everyone you run across for the most part shoots first. I don't think you can survive in that world without having somewhat of a "kill or be killed" attitude, regardless of how "lawful" you are.



I mean, self defense is legal!

Adam Miller
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I'm not sure addressing violence really addresses the core issue. I find the statement from Kotaku that writers are brought on board after the game is designed more telling -- true or not.



Take most RPGs, which are more narrative-driven than most games. There is, in general, a disconnect between the actual gameplay and logic of the world and the narrative being told about it. A common example is traversing a perilous dungeon with your band of warriors, only to meet up with the mayor or some elderly townsperson at the other end; how the hell did the weakling make it?



ian's comment also gets at this:



"What does drive me nuts, GTA San Andreas I'm looking squarely at you, is when I've run around being a wicked bad ass, and encounter a cinematic story element hands me my ass in a context that in normal game play I could / would have likely / easily surmounted."



Narrative becomes even more difficult to relate to when the gameplay is truly disconnected (fighting and puzzle games, for example). The fundamental problem, of course, is that games tend to focus on activities that are fun, or at least that we could not otherwise do in our mundane lives (violence being foremost, perhaps). They also focus on activities that are achievable through the medium of game, and unfortunately, expressing emotion and having a conversation are two of the most difficult (the former may be impossible).



That said, I do think games could do a better job of incorporating narrative. Fallout 3, for example, doesn't really have any nondescript, out of place townsfolk; the hordes of bad guys are clearly explained and present an appropriate level of challenge; the side quests all meaningfully add to the world or story, and repercussions tend to stick. On the other hand, let's face it -- developing a game is a monumental task, and the resources required to properly integrate a narrative are simply too great in most cases. But, just as we can imagine 8-bit sprites to be spaceships and aliens, so too can we relate a narrative, no matter how tacked on, to gameplay that seems to bear no relation to it.

Darby McDevitt
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@ Wes



Agreed, and I hope I was careful enough to distinguish "Narrative Utility" from "Narrative Realism". I'm only interested in Narrative Realism in games if that is the clear intent of the developer (and if they succeed in making the game fun). Narrative Utility is a different matter, and my core point is simply "I want to play more of the story, not watch it."



@ Adam



Certainly this issue is not confined to violence, but I used that as a jumping off point because it is the most obvious and ubiquitous example of this growing divide. Your "Fallout 3" example gives excellent reasons to admire the care that went into creating that fantastic game, but it steers a little wide of my mark. What I'm arguing for are mechanics that let the player directly engage with a larger percentage of the story than currently available. Yes, the story and setting of Fallout 3 is robust and sprawling, but the player only "plays" the collecting, killing, and exploring parts of it -- he is told the rest.

Darby McDevitt
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Oh and... @ Ian



I'm not too bothered by this schism either, in practice, on weekends ... I enjoyed the hell out of all the games I mentioned. At the same time, I think this persistent disconnect is a hindrance that will prevent narrative-heavy games from achieving a kind of "transcendent" narrative effect. Even "Braid", which I loved to no end, missed a fantastic opportunity to integrate its obtuse narrative with the player's actions and objectives. And you can bet that I will be running right past all those books the next time I play it through -- I'll be satisfied with hearing that pleasant "page folding" sound, then moving on.

Darby McDevitt
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If anyone is up for the task, I'd be curious to hear people describe their favorite non-traditional, gameplay driven narrative moments... SPOILER laden, of course.



I already mentioned my love for Red Dead Redemption's final act, in which all of your shooting and riding abilities are harnessed in the service of ranching, not murdering. This surprised and delighted me. The way these missions allowed you to bond with your son by actively participating in his education was far more subtle than I ever expected.



Here's another: I recently played through Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence for the first time and really appreciated the section where I had to keep the injured character Eva on her feet by hunting small critters and picking mushrooms for her to devour. It took what was already a familiar mechanic -- "Snake Eating" -- and tweaked it just a tad to create a story moment I actually got to play, not watch. Very effective, and very instructive on how to reuse existing mechanics to excellent effect. A whole game based on this idea would be dull, obviously. But for one level, it was a nice challenge, and it didn't rely on a 20 minute cut-scene to build a relationship between the two characters.

Anton Knyazyev
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Ok, here goes a really shameless (even by my standards) plug. I'm actually working on a Neverwinter Nights 2 module that is supposed to do just that - to merge gameplay and narrative (it's still beta, you can find it here - http://nwvault.ign.com/View.php?view=NWN2ModulesEnglish.Detail&id
=447). It probably *is* an adventure game at its heart, but it's something I'd call an "adventure 2.0", meaning it (for the most part) uses core gameplay mechanics to solve the puzzles. The gameplay-narrative merge is supposed to be achieved by a) making gameplay actions have metaphorical meaning (dream setting helps here a lot), and b) having story "cutscenes" be interactive, so that even if the list of possible outcomes is not quite procedural, it is at least justified from the gameplay point of view.

Nathan Addison
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The first thing this article did was make me consider how many things I have "killed" in all my years of video gaming...ouch



The second thing this article did was to encourage my creative writing/design skills.



As the only designer in a small studio that doesn't succumb to the dread known as "crunch time" I have the liberty of crafting story and game mechanics together. This article fascinates me. What a fun challenge it will be to design a game driven by story mechanics lol. Thank you, sir, for giving me another sandbox of possibilities to play in.

Ellis Kim
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I'm reminded of a few things I've read recently.



In the process of development for Ninja Theory's "Enslaved," their writer became particularly involved in the design process, as he began asking questions like "why is character X fighting here?"



Giving meaning to level design through narrative justification instead of simply making a series of kill boxes is a step towards better game narrative that far too few developers consider.



The only valid reason for putting a player through a series of kill boxes should be for survival. But in lieu of the protagonist's drive being "survival," something like avoiding enemy detection should also be equally important, and the player rewarded, instead of facing an invisible wall or requiring killing x number of soldiers to trigger an arbitrary sequence to move on.



But another thing that came to mind while reading the piece was just how Heavy Rain handled "murder" and narrative. There are several points where the player can kill a character, and they're all incredibly tense moments, unlike anything I had ever played before. When games can start treating "killing" in a realistic fashion, instead of, say, killing mindless droves of enemies who are all out to get you in a military shooter, I think games as a medium can start transcending its connotation to juvenile entertainment.



Perhaps the solution is fixing the flaw of how broken the gaming narrative has become through death and murder is to simply examine the core principles of what made Heavy Rain, and try and make the mechanics make sense within the world. Do you really need a jump button, and if there's going to be one, shouldn't the people react accordingly?



If a real Gordon Freeman were to start spazzing out and jumping up against Alyx over and over, shouldn't she push him away or sock him in the gut? With persistence, this could ultimate lead to a fail state as well. When the mechanic doesn't make sense for a scenario, should the game designer allow the player to have access to all of their actions?



This question is answered by some games by not allowing you to run while in-doors, which can be pretty maddening. Its can also be seen as a flawed solution. Not letting you ride your bike inside a hospital is one thing (unless you're House), but not letting you run is another.



But when its deliberately allowed, with consequences in place, such as stealing from a certain shop in the first Legend of Zelda game for Game Boy, full mechanical control can lead to uniquely "gamey" immersion.



Maybe the solution for some of the games named by the article's author is deeper integration of principles that originate from the adventure genre, and law enforcement's act of incapacitating the player rather than going after their life, with consequences to follow should the player be captured.



There are even some games where you are "caught," instead of being outright killed, and must either escape, or be saved by another character that is controlled by the same player, instead of reaching a fail state.



Leave killing to the military games, and give death meaning for scenarios where death shouldn't be the norm.



On a final note, I just want to mention that the Afro Samurai game completely irks me after watching a video of the game where they juxtapose sexy naked lady assassins with the player character cutting these ladies in half. There's just no taste in that.

Jonathan Lee
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I think this is a great article; it articulates very well a lot of what I have been thinking about storytelling in video games for a long time. The real story of any game is what the player does, regardless of whatever decorations are put on top of it. I, myself, just finished Among Thieves two days ago, and as fun as the game was, it ultimately proved exhausting because of the massive disconnect between the likable-as-written and acted protagonist and the terrible things he does to people from start to finish. The principle antagonist even comments on it at the end. So I found the character writing and dialog to be enjoyable, but the narrative to be rather bad.



What it made me think of, though, was how much better the game would've been if Drake was the bad guy. Imagine a puzzle-based action platformer where the player controls a young female archeologist/scientist type who is on the brink of discovering an ancient civilization. Her expedition brings out all sorts of treasure hunters and mercenary-types who want to cash in on the find, but lead among them is Drake - charming, handsome and lucky, but he is a psychopathic monster who will kill anyone without hesitation, and who is neigh-unstoppable. With a personality unchanged from the game's current form, he helps defend the player and pushes them on, but you know he will kill you when you get to the end. In the end the player must find a way to outsmart this monster using whatever limited resources you have; I think that would be more interesting.



Anyway, to look at some people who are really exploring the connections between gameplay mechanics and narrative, you should really look at indie role-playing games like Burning Wheel, The Shadow of Yesterday (http://tsoy.crngames.com/), or My Life With Master. These sorts of role-playing games have a very different sort of vibe than D&D or other games where the main goal of play comes down to "kill things and take their stuff". It's not 100% analogous to video games, but there are a lot of interesting ideas there. I'd recommend taking a look.



One quick example is what are called "Keys" in the Shadow of Yesterday. Keys allow the player to choose what kind of gameplay they are most interested in by selecting what they will gain experience for. So you can choose the Key of Bloodlust and get experience points for every enemy you defeat, or the Key of Renown, which gives you experience based on how many people know your character's name. There are keys for falling in love, making enemies, advancing towards certain goals, and there are limits on how they can be used. It's an interesting system that I think could be brought over to different types of video games as well.



Killing things and taking their stuff can be fun, but if that's what the game is about, that's what the story should be about as well.

Joshua Shaw
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"If anyone is up for the task, I'd be curious to hear people describe their favorite non-traditional, gameplay driven narrative moments... SPOILER laden, of course."



A few thoughts come to mind, although I’ll want to think more about this issue.



1. I loved how the stats and dialogue trees were used (back in the day) in Planescape: Torment. I find that I often want to play non-combat-oriented characters in RPGs, but I’m discouraged because I know that it will make the game much more difficult. Sure, it would be great to play a wise, charismatic sage-like character, but do I really want to replay each boss fight two dozens times because I’m now so underpowered?



However, I found that in Planescape: Torment it actually paid off to play a wise character. I loved that focusing on non-combat stats, such as putting more points into wisdom than strength, opened up so many rich dialogue options and that most of the game’s conflicts could be resolved through dialogue. I loved how the game rewarded me for being intelligent. And I loved that the boss fights often seemed to become more easy the more wise I was because I could out-debate my opponents. For example, it struck me as one of the most amazing game endings that I could overcome the final boss, who turned out to be my own character’s soul, after watching him completely over-power the close friends and lovers I had collected over the course of my quest, by out-arguing him in a philosophic debate in which I proved to him that he, the soul, could not exist without me, the body.



Sadly, I don’t think another game like Planescape: Torment will be created any time soon. It’s the one game that I feel confident upholding as genuine work of art.



2. There is a gameplay element that I’ve seen used to achieve interesting narrative results in at least a few games. At a certain point in the game, the player’s avatar is stripped of most of their abilities, gear, etc. The gameplay options that I managed to open up are taken away from me, for a while at least, and I’m forced to sort of restart the game and to return to a position of relative vulnerability.



For example, this element is used at the start of God of War II and Prototype to sort of tease players into playing the game. You’re briefly given all of these cool combo moves and special powers that you’ll re-acquire later in the game, and getting to briefly use them piques your interest in the game. It also allows the game to start off with a giant, summer blockbuster fight scene before you are forced to return to less interesting, more repetitive game play.



In some games, however, this element is used to achieve some interesting narrative results. I wasn’t crazy about Fable, but I loved the point at which you were imprisoned, stripped of all of your gear and powers, and forced to spend several years (!) trying to escape the prison. Up until that point, I had been playing as an evil character, and I had lapsed into that tendency to sort of mechanically bully everything in the game because I had become so overpowered. I loved that the game forced me to completely flip-flop and to play from the standpoint of a powerless victim. (In the narrative I spun about my character, his years in that prison led him to experience a change of heart, and I played out the rest of the game as a good character in search of redemption for his past misdeeds.)



One other observation. I agree with everything that’s been said so far about what inhibits more interesting storytelling in games. I would just add that perhaps the psychology and the community of gamers may have changed and that this too might inhibit more interesting syntheses of narratives and gameplay. I wonder if I’m not too lazy these days to do the work required by some forms of gameplay, and consequently whether I close myself off to the narrative experiences that they might facilitate.



Let me give an example. I loved playing Thief: The Dark Project back in the day. I often found myself so immersed in the game that I would start to panic when a mission went awry. I’d break into some mansion and make my way to the treasure I’d set out to loot, only to discover that I’d misread my map, that I was lost, that I had no idea where to look for the treasure after all. And then I’d start to worry about how long I could hide from the guard patrols. It had required so much patience on my part to simply sneak into the mansion and get past all the patrols, the traps, the alarms, etc. Could I really handle backtracking and avoiding them all again for, say, another hour? I'd find myself literally perspiring as I began the long slog back to where I thought I made my first mistake and then I'd catch myself realizing that I was actually having a lot of fun letting the game needle me in this way.



Sadly, I don’t think I’d let myself have this experience any more. If I found that I’d made a mistake, I’d just pause the game, pull up an on-line walkthrough, and then restart the mission, this time with full knowledge of exactly where I should be going, what loot to pick up along the way, how to avoid the guards, etc. The game would become a lot easier, and I’d be able to feel the pride of mastering that mission more quickly, but I’d also miss out on how well the game’s “first person sneaker” mechanic sustained a broader range of experiences: fear, panic, suspense, exhaustion, patience, voyeurism, exploration, an adrenaline-fueled sense of thrill, etc.



So, I wonder if the psychology of gamers doesn’t play into this issue as well. I imagine that in a lot of cases a game’s writers and other designers could put together an absolutely brilliant fusion of narrative and gameplay that players would simply ignore because they’re so focused on find shortcuts to beat the game.

Chris Daniel
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Welcome to contemporary mainstream game making...



I sometimes wonder when the cutomers (players) will realize that they get the same soup over and over again and pay 50 bucks for it every time.



The real core element of games is interaction. If I have an idea as a designer my first thinking should be:

What mechanic would represent this idea?



The idea of the games mentioned is: If you have a problem kill your problem.



The added narration could increase the experience for sure. But there is a gab between mechanics and narrative that is not yet closed and I wonder when or if it can be closed.



A real innovation would be very hard and expensive (for example very convincing AI, overcoming Uncanny Valley to name only two)

Nathan Addison
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@Chris



"I sometimes wonder when the cutomers (players) will realize that they get the same soup over and over again and pay 50 bucks for it every time."



Crying shame, isn't it?....well, I suppose not for some of us.

Larry Rosenthal
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so are these "games" that "can save the world" or the ones that " cant make johnny a sociopath"?

your local games lobby shill needs to know;)



yes. gamez as culture over 30 years, and all we have to show for it is mainly 38 year old -"12 year olds"....:)



its a medium.... treat it like one.

Kriss Daniels
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A writer looks at the state of writing in video games.



Decides games really need to focus on writing and empower writers into other areas in order to make better games.



What are the odds of that?



Maybe the best thing would actually be to remove as many narrative centric people as possible, rather than promote them to unsuitable roles.



Maybe there is no real demand for narrative.



Maybe people would rather play facebook games with their friends.

Darby McDevitt
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@ Chris D



"The idea of the games mentioned is: If you have a problem kill your problem."



Nice and succinct, yes! As for this:



"A real innovation would be very hard and expensive (for example very convincing AI, overcoming Uncanny Valley to name only two)"



Jumping these hurdles might be an appealing long term challenge, but I don't think they're absolutely necessary to solve the problems I've raised here. Each time a designer starts working on a game, one of the primary challenge he faces is what i'd call the "breadth and depth" equation: how many game mechanics do you need to make your game fun, and how many different ways you can reuse each of them.



Most action games have a standard battery of familiar mechanics: Jumping, walking, running, attacking (in more than a few ways), and "interacting", whatever that means. In the last 20 years, designers have squeezed out about as much as they can from this base set. Take jumping for starters.... we have regular jumping, double jumping, long jumping, wall jumping, even "rocket jumping". All these innovations have introduced welcome challenges to the games we know and love. However, they have NOT added much in the way of helping the story be told. So unless we dream up a new species that communicates its emotions through various styles of jumping, we aren't going to find many new ways to let the player "play the story" simply by jumping.



How about through "attacking". Here I think we have a bit more leeway. You can swing a sword in a great many games. But it is also possible, however awkward and unlikely, that we could use this same mechanic for other less violent means. We could chop down a tree for its wood, we could clear brush in preparation for setting up a campfire, or perhaps even slice swatches of cloth for a local tailor, or chop up some vegetables and fruit in preparation for a meal (many of us laughed when we saw the E3 trailer of Raiden chopping watermelons in Metal Gear Solid: Rising, but this is exactly what i'm talking about. The novelty of it hides some potentially clever uses.)



Or, best of all, we could create a new, non-standard mechanic specifically to help us play our story better. But we'll have to be careful here; if it's too specialized, we might not be able to re-use it very often, and may be wasting a perfectly good button in its service. I specifically called out the "hand holding" mechanic in ICO for this reason... at first blush it sounds nuts to dedicate an entire button to holding someone's hand, but as you play through the game, its utility surprises: you can lead Yorda by the hand to speed her up, you can pull her up to high ledges, and you can catch her when she leaps across dodgy chasms. All in all, its a pretty versatile feature for a designer to play with, and it adds the tiniest bit of story and character development, without resorting to expository narration or text.



So, the challenge is not necessarily "how do replace every standard narrative convention with a game mechanic" ... its more of the opposite: "what interesting game mechanics can I invent that will allow me to tell an interesting story in a new way?"

Darby McDevitt
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@ Kriss



I must be a terrible writer if you got that sense. I thought my article was arguing for LESS writing and more "storytelling through gameplay". But I'll let posterity be the ultimate judge.

Larry Rosenthal
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the actual problem with the "gamez media" is "it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck..but ISNT a duck"



and that way too many people don't seem to be able to comprehend or care about this;)



after 30 years, you end up wading in a lot of faux duck poo....



food for thought.

Nathan Addison
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@Darby



Yes. Your article was very easy to understand. I know it inspired me lol

Josh Foreman
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Excellent article. I make a lot of the same points but with more aggressiveness and mixed metaphors here:



http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JoshForeman/20100729/5668/Why_I_Ha
te_Stories_in_Video_Games.php



I'm working on a follow-up that deals directly with the issue of how we can start transplanting our "story" into gameplay.

Robert Green
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The first game that came to my mind after reading this article was the 2008 Prince of Persia. Where earlier games (and the most recent movie tie-in) had you fighting dozens of enemies every hour, this one made every enemy encounter a self-contained spectacle unto itself. This meant the entire game could get by with only a few dozen fights in the course of at least 10 hours.

Which in turn reminded me of Shadow of the Colossus, which did away entirely with the concept of mid-level fights.

So where games give you the feeling of being a mass-murderer (and yeah, I just finished Uncharted 2 as well, and it did), this is certainly one question that should be asked: is there any way we can reduce the number of enemies, but make the combat more meaningful in the process? Not having ammo lying everywhere and mid-fight regenerating health might help. Not filling a street with 30 generic, nameless, enemy grunts with little motivation to risk their lives taking yours would too.

David Tarris
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Not that there aren't valid points being made about the disconnect between story and gameplay in many titles today, but I do think it's interesting that Shakespeare was brought up...



"Imagine Shakespeare finishing every single scene of all of his plays with a swordfight or chase and you'll get the idea. The dialog might be good, but the story arc is a staccato of identical beats."



I think this point is interesting because, as is well known today, Shakespeare did in fact inject all sorts of incongruous elements into his plays apart from the main story arc, for no other reason than that people wanted to be entertained with sword-fights, wrestling matches, and jesters accosting noblewomen on the street.



The point is that even the most revered stories of all time like Othello and Hamlet were more about entertainment than perfectly structured narratives. I'm sure Shakespeare himself would have been happier without all the needless action, but his plays are still lauded for their finely crafted stories in spite of the "groundling" flourishes.



So as much as I agree that games should strive for more narrative consistency, I think historically, throughout all entertainment, there has been reconciliation between mindless entertainment and complex stories. People want entertainment in many forms, and I think they can have their cake and eat it too in this instance.

Chris Daniel
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@ Darby McDevitt



"So, the challenge is not necessarily "how do replace every standard narrative convention with a game mechanic" ... its more of the opposite: "what interesting game mechanics can I invent that will allow me to tell an interesting story in a new way?"



I agree with you here for sure.



Another thinker about this topic with whom I agree is Jesper Juul:



http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-gts/



cheers

Zev Youra
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I've been reading GS for about a year, year and a half now, and I can say without a doubt that I think this is the most compelling article I've read on this site. You've distilled the problems I see in games to their essence (which are also represented more obliquely in the recent New Yorker article "Painkiller Deathstreak," in which the author plays through some blockbusters from the last year). I'm not sure if I have anything to add to this yet; there's a lot to ponder. I only hope that the "bright future" you envision at the end comes to pass.

Tadhg Kelly
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@Darby McDevitt



Interesting piece. At first it reads as though you're making a case for more game narrative consideration, but by the end of it you seem to arrive at the conclusion that it's all about the world and not really about a story. In the link that I posted above we're having much the same debate, but with the added twist of this:



Games are not a storytelling medium, but they are a fictional one. I think it's important for game writing (and writers) to get past the idea of "narrative" and "story" and instead consider that their core contribution to worldmaking is in providing breadth and depth of colour and delivering theme (and possibly meaning) within the context of play rather than trying to fight against it.



"Storytelling" as a concept brings a lot of specific constructs with it (plot points, dramatic arc, heroic central character, etc) which all form a poor fit inside games for one reason or another. On the other hand, writing in the form of ambient elements (the GTA radio), discoverables (reading emails in Deus Ex), concurrent dialogue (Half Life), short transitions (game-scenario changing cut scenes, rather than long "dramatic" borefests) and scene-direction for artists and level designers, all add significantly to the creative and emotional impact of any game.



Realising that game writing is not storytelling also frees us from the ugly conflation of theory that is the self-constructed-story idea. This idea is used conventionally but is (in my view) a rationalisation that a lot of theorists are using to permit them to speak about gameworld writing (much as you have discussed) while still retaining the perceived legitimacy of storytelling. It's an unnecessary crutch, however.



If I might, I had some specific comments on parts of the article:



...What I do worry about, however, is the creeping damage this exaggerated quantity of killing has inflicted on the strength, quality, and seriousness of so many game narratives...



What about the damage that insistence on such misplaced narratives places on the gameplay? A lot of what drives gameplaying is, naturally, the urge to play. Much of the time, the attempt at narrative pauses, interrupts or otherwise attempts to work against gameplaying.



Your core example of the hero as mass murderer is a case in point: The narrative-conscious designer tries to work against this, concocting scenarios and mechanic shifts to try to make the player FEEL, but they invariably come out as clumsy, arbitrary and unfair game shifts. Anti-mechanic design can be fun, but only in short bursts. Basing a game on it is a bad idea.



On the other hand, the game conscious designer realises that this quandary doesn't matter. Since the player isn't a hero in a story, but a player playing a game in a world, there is no moral quandary. Context (thus emotion, character motivation, etc) doesn't really matter.



...In all three of the games alluded to above, the storylines are well-written, often subtle, and chock-full of emotional intensity. But when it comes time for the player to engage the game, these narrative highs and lows are obliterated in favor of a much smaller and more stylized range of possible expressions: run, ride, jump, dodge. Kill or be killed....



Are they really? Most game writing, even in highly regarded games, is quite crude and obvious. Its primary function is transition, like silent movie title cards. The best form of writing in games is in-world rather than around-world. So that means more asset-led writing (incidental dialogue, radio stations, interact-able objects in Deus Ex) rather than cut-scenes or branched dialogue because it works with our attention rather than fighting with it.



...What are players to think when a game tries to have it both ways -- a weighty, tragic story and a bloody good time?...



In my experience, they ignore the weighty stuff because it's not relevant. That's why it always seems so clunky. In all artforms there is the concept of efficiency, that less is more, that it is better to use one scene to convey 12 points rather than 12 separate scenes, and so on. Efficiency is also at the heart of great game design: It's better to use one extensible mechanic in 12 levels than 12 separate mechanics.



My point is that the soul of artistic efficiency in games is the gameplay. The weighty tragic story is largely extraneous and, like the title cards in silent movies, its only function is to move the action along. In silent movies the best title cards were really simple phrases read in 5 seconds, and in most games that I've played the best cut-scenery is similarly short (<30 seconds preferably). Any longer than that and it's like a silent movie trying to tell its story with many title cards: It's not efficient.



...Matters of emotion, morality, empathy, religion, cultural identity, and the like, are difficult to translate into iterative mechanics because they are primarily psychological or interior phenomena with no clear victory conditions...



They also require complete attention from the audience. In the other thread I made the point that there's a reason why movies are best watched in the dark on big screens with loud sound effects: They take over your attention and permit no distraction. The problem for game writers trying to make movie-style plots is that the player's attention is always focused on what they are doing rather than what the game script is saying.



This tendency gets worse when a game's action becomes intense. As the challenge increases, aesthetic elements either fall away or become irritating: The player wants to concentrate to gain their epic win, and they really don't want to hear about why NPC X's drug habit led him down a dark road at just that moment.



...But there is a definite problem to be addressed: game writing is often sub-par, clumsy, and badly integrated even under seemingly ideal conditions. Why is this?...



Because of the attention span problem above. Secondly because game writing is often more concerned with being somewhat context-less. So NPC characters invariably have lumpy clanging dialogue to remind the player of what they were doing in the first place, and give them a mission. This gets worse with branched dialogue trees and repeated conversation tree use (where you ask a character the same question over and over for a game benefit).



...A game can be fun without a good (or sensible) story, but a good story with terrible gameplay is an outright failure....



Exactly. If you excised the story from most modern games, or reduced the transitions (cut-scenes etc) to as short a length as possible, in most cases there would be no loss at all. Why is because all they are actually doing is diverting attention. Having just played through Starcraft 2, for example, the game is just much sloppier in its transitions because they wanted to tell a story, produce expensive CGI sequences, and so on. The original game managed to do a better job of setting the scene and moving along the action with simple briefing screens because they were shorter, more relevant and more efficient.



...When late-stage design iterations happen, the results can be disastrous...



Well, what that means is that they can be disastrous to the imagined flow of the writing work. In actuality, what they expose is how much the writing flow generally is irrelevant to proceedings. The writing matters, but the flow (as in the plot, convention of storytelling, etc) doesn't really.



...How many different ways can I set up the next killing spree, chase, or navigation puzzle before the repetition begins to give the narrative an artificial tint?...



Very few, true. But the argument is that perhaps you should exercise a lighter rather than heavier touch. How much context do I actually need in order to grasp what the next mission is? Do I really need a narrative to achieve that (usually no) and if so can some or all of that be imparted in-world rather than in transition? Fundamentally, all forms of writing benefit from being concise, so why in so many games do writers and designers insist on rambling on?



...I take perverse pleasure in watching all the clever ways Rockstar's writers conclude each mission introduction with the obligatory "C'mon, let's go do X, Y, and Z!" They're very good at disguising what is essentially the same over and over, but they can't remove it entirely...



No, because the function of the transition is exactly that: To transit the gameplay from one task to the next task. It has no other purpose.



...But despite all the investment developers put into presenting complicated stories via cinematic sequences, the stories we gamers seem to enjoy most are the tiny narratives we create ourselves through the act of playing...



I hate that phrase. What you're saying is simply that players like to play. The need to dress it up with the "create their own stories" idea is one that gives legitimacy to the idea of game storytelling, a kind of self-justification, but it's not really a real-world thing. Games do not inherently let players create their own stories any more than any other activity in life, because ultimately what we're talking about is just doing stuff.



If you get that idea, then what it means is that games aren't really a storytelling medium. They are certainly a creative medium though. And as writers there is great value in that.



...But by relying on such a narrow set of game mechanics, developers have limited the sort of experiences players can create for themselves...



No, again, that's self-justification talking. Game mechanics are by necessity simple: A mechanic has to consist of a simple verb-driven and extensible activity with simple goals because such constraints drive understanding (I can figure out what to do) and mastery (I can figure out how to play optimally and win). Subtle mechanics are at odds with good game experience because they are hard to understand, not interesting to master, and feel arbitrary to the end user. The creature in the Black and White games is an example of a mechanic that is subtle, and the result is oblique and not engaging. Simple mechanics are essential to good game design.



...Until writers and designers combine their talents to find a more natural fusion of their disciplines, improved cinematic sequences and dialogue will not elevate the medium much higher than it is now...



I'd go further: This synthesis will NEVER happen because it rests on paradoxes. It sounds great in principle but the reason it never happens is that in reality it doesn't exist. The writers job in game development is essential but it is not a storytelling job.



I'd also attack this point most severely: The idea that this synthesis has to happen in order to "elevate the medium higher" is the most damaging aspect of believing that games are a storytelling medium. It sets us up for failure because it is an unattainable goal.



To get games to be a higher medium we have to look at them on their own terms and stop trying to force them to be something else. The melding of game and deep story is an inherently unnatural one, and it shows again and again. What games are is a worldmaking medium, not a storytelling medium. They share a lot more in common with visual arts like paintings and sculpture than they ever did with storytelling.



...Traditional graphic adventure games have typically fared better bridging this narrative-gameplay divide: they have better pacing, more specialized narrative interactions, and more compelling story arcs than most modern action games...



Actually I don't think they have. Graphic adventures fell out of style for a couple of reasons, but one of them was that the gameplay in them was really awful. For all their charm, they did all end up as screen-scanning and inventory-lock scenarios that became extremely dull when the game's narrative started becoming too oblique. Indigo Prophecy (and it looks like Heavy Rain too) follows this trend very badly also.



Their fundamental flaw is that they construct very brittle worlds. When you've ended up in a loop conversation with a clown in Grim Fandango because you're trying to get a balloon to open a pipe (I think? It's been a while) all sense of narrative or gameplay simply vanish and you're left with what amounts to a permutation exercise.



...This is just a small sampling of so many promising examples, and it's a very good sign. It means that developers are learning that good writing is not limited to snappy dialog, and that good storytelling need not be overtly written, but can be designed in such a way that it emerges from the player's activity...



I think the lesson to be learned is that we're worldmakers, not storytellers. Using mechanics (as in Chibi Robo) to convey a situation is in itself artistic. There is no need to dress this artistry up in the language of stories just to make it feel legitimate: It is already legitimate. That self-created legitimacy is the future and it is what will allow us to make bolder, better, better written and more artistic games. Once we ditch the hobbling ideas of "story" and look to "world" instead, we are set free.

Toby Hazes
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The big problem is that games as they are now are very good at simulating physical stuff, killing, destructing, constructing, creating, racing, etc, but we're still searching how to simulate abstract emotional stuff.



As for the killing itself, I love the Metal Gear approach, giving you violent and non-violent ways to get through and giving you tranquilizer weapons next to lethal ones.



I tried to play Assassin's Creed with as few killing as possible and in some missions (like when you have to take out some rooftop guards) I would've liked a tranquilizer weapon or just knocking them unconscious.



On a related note, I think this is why LotR has Orcs and Star Wars has Storm Troopers. It allows the heroes to be swashbucklers and wage epic battles without being mass murderers (of 'human' beings).



All in all, I don't think killing is going anywhere anytime soon... but with time we'll find the answers =)

Darby McDevitt
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@ Tadhg Kelly



Thank you for your extensive and reasoned reply. I don't think our arguments are at odds in most respects, but I do think some of our points have missed one another simply through lack of clear boundaries. For one, we seem to be aiming at targets of differing sizes -- my goal was to investigate a specific, limited sub-set of games we might clinically refer to as "narrative driven games". That is, of all the "game types" in existence, my article concerns itself with a group of these specifically built on a solid narrative foundation. This is just one of the many ways a game can "be"; Red Dead Redemption is just this sort of experience, while Tetris, Super Mario Brothers, and Katamari Damacy are not. But all four of these games definitely have "narratives". More on this in a moment.



We have to be careful about classification mistakes in every medium, of course: Take the super-set "Film" and note that within this class we have loosely defined sub-sets: "Documentaries", "Film Essays", "Fictional films", "Educational films", etc. In the same way one would be a fool to apply the critical benchmarks of a documentary to a film essay like Orson Welles's "F For Fake", it would also be useless to dismiss a narrative driven, adventure puzzler like "Grim Fandango" simply because it doesn't have the emergent properties of "Tetris". These games are attempting very different things. (Also note that I referred to adventure games as "interactive stories" in anticipation of this disagreement. I am reminded of Walter Benjamin's comment that all great works of art either create a new genre or destroy an old one... i think this is applicable in our case here.)



To a large extent, games must be criticized on their own terms. And to do so we must first ask "what is this game trying to accomplish?" and then "has it done so?". My article was aimed specifically at those games in which, for whatever reason, the designers have decided narrative will play a critical role. We know which games these are because they telegraph their intentions clearly. With this in mind, we should then ask "did this game accomplish what it set out to do in the most successful way possible?"



It is crucial at this stage to avoid wistful ruminations about what games should not be; games are an extraordinarily flexible medium and the moment we think we have them nailed down, they throw us a curveball. In much the same way it was a mistake for some filmmakers to decry the advent of the "talkies", and argue for "pure cinema" -- i.e. film as a purely visual narrative medium -- we should be careful about saying things like "games are not a storytelling medium". While a large majority of filmmakers of the 30s and 40s made what could only be called "filmed plays", it didn't take long for film makers of great talent to incorporate sound into their films in a way that suited the medium better, and played up its strengths. I remember reading similar arguments about video in the 80s and 90s. More than a few filmmakers were convinced that a movie shot on video could not properly be called cinema. Viewed from our cozy seats in the future, I think most of us would agree this was a pretty boneheaded statement. The same evolution will happen for games and stories, but it will be an evolution, not merely a combination.



You mentioned your belief that games had more in common with painting and sculpture, but here too you cast too broad of a net. What paintings and sculptures do you mean? Gerricault's "Raft of the Medusa" is a famous, harrowing painting with a very definite embedded narrative ... the majority of Rothko's paintings, however, do not imply any story movement at all. Or take Rodin's masterful "The Gates of Hell" sculpture ... it is chocked full of narrative movement. But Richard Serra's sculpture's are far more abstract. All mediums suffer from these beautiful confusions of "purpose". Is Joyce's "Ulysses" a novel or not? Is hip-hop music? All these arguments sound silly in retrospect, but they burned bright in their day. The answer is, all these works expand the boundaries of whatever medium they inhabit. It doesn't strike me as intellectually profitable to argue these matters as a question of degree, on some kind of "purity scale". For me, it boils down to a matter of kind. What kind of book are we talking about? What kind of film? What kind of game?



This gets to the heart of your objection at my comment about the "narratives we create ourselves through the act of playing...". I would suggest the problem lies in our respective definitions of "narrative" -- I think you are working with a much narrower definition than my article intended, and I can't help but wonder if you are substituting the term "plot" with narrative. But let's make sure.



"A narrative is action over time or space constructed towards and aesthetic end." (Edited for clarity :) When two chess masters finish a riveting game of Chess, they have created a narrative within the confines of the game's rule set -- one full of moments of tension, doubt, uncertainty, and drama. People watching may thrill at a specific move, or watch in horror when a poor decision is made. So, though this specific narrative does not have any clear analogs to real life -- that is, when a knight takes a pawn, we don't imagine a knight skewering a poor peasant and then suffering tremendous guilt for it -- the game does have a clear narrative within its bounded "world". We can look back at that game and see that something interesting happened, something we can narrate in the form of a conflict. And we can say to ourselves "it could have gone another way."



This is what I mean by "players creating stories". You have no doubt engaged in a bit of reminiscing after playing a particularly riveting game of Starcraft or a nailbiting FPS deathmatch. When players talk to one another about specific games, it is always in the form of a narrative: "Did you see when I jumped down into the trench, rocket jumped over a barrier, snuck up behind the enemy, and knifed him to death?".... that too is a narrative, one created by the player through his own actions in this case. But, as I hint at in my article, narrative possibilities of THIS kind are limited to the mechanics available. This player could not have sneaked up on the enemy soldier and given him a backrub instead, because these mechanics are not available. Would it be possible to make a fun "giving a backrub" mechanic? I have no idea. Nobody has ever tried it, to my knowledge. Perhaps a writer and designer will get together one day and figure out how to make it happen, and how to include it in a meaningful way in a larger narrative.



Modern games have amplified these challenges enormously, because the instant you begin playing a game with real-world isomorphisms, you begin creating a narrative. It's unavoidable. Even if Grand Theft Auto 4 had no written story, it would be chocked full of narratives simply by the fact that it has a real-world setting and that all the mechanics available are based on real world activities. As soon as the player walks Nico down the street, steals a car, runs over a pedestrian, and ditches his car in one of Central Park's lakes, he has created a narrative -- one that he may then tell his friends about in excruciating detail. Given that 90 percent of most modern games are now set in realistic "worlds", it is inevitable that narratives will emerge as people play them, and the majority of these will be violent. This is the nature and Achilles heel of realistic representation: the closer your game comes to representing reality (or some fantasy version of it) the more these accidental narratives will emerge. The question at the heart of my article is "If we DO want to create a game with a detailed story, how do we broaden the gameplay so there is not such a giant disconnect between the mechanics and the story?" A related question, which I hope to get at in another article, is: "What are the advantages and disadvantages of creating specific experiences for the player, versus creating mechanics which allow the players to create novel experiences for themselves." This is a tricky issue, but again it gets down to the kind of game you hope to make.



Take two of my favorite "major" games of the past year: Braid and Demon's Souls. Which game has a deeper story? Most would say Braid, and I would too. But, which game has deeper narrative possibilities? I would argue that Demon's Souls wins by a long shot, because Demon's Souls has a significantly higher number of open ended challenges and paths. Every player will create a slightly different narrative as they play through this game based on the thousands of small choices they make each and every minute -- on my first playthrough I was a Hunter and my entire experience was one of close quarters combat and sniping with my bow. Now, on my second play-through, I am a mage and the experience could not be more different. And of course even two people who play mages will have different experiences. Braid on the other hand has a relatively fixed path -- every puzzle has one general solution (I believe) and every one will solve them in roughly the same way. But, of course, neither one is a "purer" game experience...



I should have been a little more cautious with my comment about "elevating" games ... here I was referring to narrative driven games specifically and not the entire medium of games. I do think the games I mentioned are well written in the same sense that many action films are well written. This is the experience most of these games are trying to emulate -- the thrill of being a hero -- so we shouldn't expect any deep philosophizing. But we should hope that these stories can be self-consistent.



You end with the suggestion that we focus on "creating worlds", and I would heartily agree in specific instances, but not in general. I wanted to refrain as much as I could from dictating what types of games I think people should be making, and focus more on helping improve the games people are already making with the hope that novel new combinations may rise out of these improvements. In this respect, I doubt we disagree.



Thanks again for your attention and thoughtful commentary.

John Mawhorter
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Tadhg Kelly laying the smackdown... saying exactly what I wanted to say. It's very seldom I find myself in complete agreement with a game developer on the narrative/game issue, so thank you for existing.

Tadhg Kelly
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@Darby McDevitt



Happy to debate. I am coming at this from a slightly different position though: I don't think games like Red Dead Redemption exist in a special sub-class in which the narrative component works better just because more time and energy has been put into them. I think they don't work just as much as they don't work in all other kinds of games.



--- Red Dead ---



As chance would have it I played a massive chunk of Red Dead yesterday. The split between the movie moments and the gameplay in that game is just as bad rotten as it is in many a poorer game, despite the fact that the writing and presentation are much better than in, say, your average JRPG. The skill of delivery is not what's wrong at all, it's the divided attention. In the end of the day, it's moderately interesting to watch the main characters talk all soulfully about the west, the federal government and such and such, but it has the same on/off state issue. I find in playing it that I'm not that engaged.



On the other hand, the experience of actually playing in New Austin, of driving stage coaches, herding cows and wrangling horses is interesting. The feeling that I have is that the game has placed the joypad in my hand, and thus I am wanting to play rather than watch. Despite the obvious quality of Red Dead's presentation, the "narrative" ultimately comes down to long-winded presentation of missions (as that's its function) but it's doing so over-elaborately.



It's also assigning motivations to my character which sound good in cut-scene (wife, family, etc) but when I'm actually riding a horse or lasso-ing someone or swearing at cow for wandering off or doing a cart race, I really couldn't care less. My attention is elsewhere. All this motivation/character stuff feels like its someone else, and I would be as happy or not if my character was actually dumb and the cut-scenes much much shorter (much as in GTA3). The exposition is simply getting in the way, to the point that - having played it for 12 hours yesterday - I can't even remember my character's name. It's John something. I could Google it, but it's just not that important. He's not may character, he's my doll that I push around, ride horses, shoot crims and lasso stuff with.



My point: If Rockstar wanted to make a Grand Theft Horse, they've done a great job of making what is a very evocative world. But they've vastly over-played the narrative element believing that that's what depth is. It's not, it's just extended transitions, even though the animation, camera work and character models are all great, they're wasted. Those guys should just make an animated Red Dead movie and package it alongside the game rather than interrupting the game flow with bits of it. It would make for a better story (no game interruptions) and a better game (no story interruptions either). That's my feeling on it anyway.



--- Classification ---



Moving away from Red Dead, I broadly agree on your point about classification. Films go from the plotless Koyaanisqatsi to straight stories like Gone with the Wind. Intentionally stories films, however, whether they are from the 20's or the 00's, fiction or documentary, tend to follow a fairly clear narrative arc (or, in the case of Pulp Fiction, 4 of them presented one after another). This arc seems intrinsic to how we process a story, emote with it and etc.



By the same token, this does not mean that all games should have the pace of Tetris to be considered "real games" or some such. What it does mean, however, is that all games too tend to have an intrinsic understanding (to do with flow, understanding, frustration) although not an "arc" understanding like a story. It is valid to say, as with badly plotted or intellectual films, that some games are actually just badly implemented from a form perspective. Some games intrinsically don't work because - like the art film - they rest on ideas about the audience and how it might react if pushed in a direction that don't exist in reality.



In games, this wish for the human brain to behave differently than it does is everywhere, and leads to the situation with Red Dead, described above. The rationale goes either:



1. The game is catering to all tastes

2. Different gamers want different things

3. The audience simply needs enough exposure to grasp it

4. Game developers are getting better at this and will one day crack the synthesis.



But in reality:



1. A product that caters to all tastes is a Homer Simpson car: a poor, confused product riven with design conflict that pleases all of the people some of the time rather than some of the people all of the time. A lot of high-profile videogames are riddled with this. Very successful games tend to either not have the problem to any great degree (Halo), or have one aspect that is so much fun that the audience essentially forgives the other BS around it (Metal Gear, Final Fantasy).



2. Of course they do. Different film goers like different genres, different book lovers like different authors. With the film and book examples, however, there is still a commonality of form across most of it. The content of a sci-fi film and romcom are worlds apart but the dramatic arcs are usually identical. With the exception of the avant garde filmgoer who is specifically interested in film as a visual art or a statement, the commonality holds. Do games have a place for an avant garde set? Of course, and we are largely it. But across the genres of games are there grand commonalities across the form, regardless of genre. Yes there are.



3. We've been at this for 30 years, and gamers all around the world are playing games. If a newbie doesn't understand how to play that's one thing. But if an old hand like myself still doesn't really get any story thrills, then either I'm close-minded (which I would argue, I'm not since I think about these things readily and am exposed to a wide variety of media sources) or there is nothing to be learned.



4. They really aren't. "Storytelling" in games today is as kludgy as it was back in the day and hasn't really changed at all. Sophistication of presentation has, but the underlying disconnect between game bit and story bit remains the same, and the game bit always wins. That's why, 30 years into making games, there are NO great game stories. The game story intrinsically does not function, and despite having loyal fans of the idea that it will one day, stubbornly continues to not do so.



--- Criticism ---



...And to do so we must first ask "what is this game trying to accomplish?" and then "has it done so?"...



I don't think that's the first question to ask. The first question is "Does this work?"



My point is that if we start from what the designer intended (or says they intended) then we're inherently establishing a value system based on what they think is right. So if the narrative focused designer is speaking in terms of his game narrative, then we are responding solely within that self-described bubble - and it very quickly becomes an echo chamber.



"Does this work?" is like looking at some free-verse poetry and asking "Does this function as a poem?" long before we get to whether the poet intended to induce feelings of guilt or rage or joy. With a game, "Does this work?" is the core of whether it's actually playable, whether it flows or has intrinsic jars, whether the core assumption driving it as a good one or a bad one.



--- Ruminations ---



I disagree: There is every reason to say what games are and are not because they are not that flexible. There are a great many subjects that games touch on, and ideas that sit well within their borders, but there are comparatively very few game mechanics that work and are extensible, very few types of perspective that work and many commonalities of mode in successful games.



To not strive to understand the framework and instead insist on being hazy is opening the door to shoddy design. One of the uniquely interesting things about game software is that it feels like it could do anything. If you've read a bit of Neal Stephenson or watched eXistenZ, it seems like we are on the verge of some vast explosion of a virtual art universe in which any and all could happen, and that idea is very attractive. In practise, however, biology and the human brain get in the way. Like the Uncanny Valley in animation, it may be disappointing to realise that players are limited in their ability think, act, feel and emote all at once but it simply is the case. The virtual world that can seemingly do everything and be meaningful all at once is the car that flies, goes underwater and can time travel. Easy to say, but in reality a complete mess.



Your example of film is more akin to stylistic debates. For example, a stylistic debate is saying that a short game with only 3 hours of gameplay could never really be any good. And then Portal comes along. Or to say that players always expect X number of levels and will never like a game with only 4 small sets of levels. And then Left 4 Dead laughs at them. Or that a platform game can't be quiet and must be like Mario (Nope, see Ico). Or that a combat game must have long levels of small enemies leading up to a boss (Shadow of the Colossus). Each is a barrier to be smashed.



What I'm talking about is *form* rather than stylistic content. Form is deeper, more intrinsic. The form of a visually storytold movie and a talkie are the same. The form of a video and big budget blockbuster are also the same.



--- Paintings ---



All of them. The form of games is user-facing, user-owned-perspective, exploratory and without context. Like the visual arts. Where games differ from the visual arts is extensible mechanics and the application of pressure (this is why Second Life is not a game, for example). Games demand winning, solving the puzzle, and creating or destroying to achieve same. (And yes, Ulysses is a novel. But Finnegan's Wake is not).



--- Narratives We Make ---



This is the "definitions" defence. It will save me a little bit of time if I copy and paste something that I wrote in the other thread on this, because the reply is identical:



... I think what tends to happen with the use of the word "story" is that it is used in a dual fashion. For example, I understand what you're saying about, say, the use of the word as a shorthand for a generalised description of events (and indeed point to the explanation I gave about marketing stories above). Story is a word used in regular language in a wide variety of situations.



However the dual use comes from then stapling that to "Storytelling" and saying that because "story" is a word with a wide variety of uses that it must follow that "storytelling" can be applied to all of them. And if a game can be described as a situation, thus a "story" by one possible definition, then the principles and artistic conventions of storytelling must be applicable.



However, "storytelling", especially in entertainment and literature, has a very specific meaning. It means a Greek arc drama. All that's actually going on here is that a number of very well intentioned people are trying to conflate two entirely different things together through the use of a common word, but it's a a bridge that has no existence in reality. "Story" meaning a simple recounting of events is not the same thing as "story" meaning a marketing term to describe a sales tool for products, and is also not the same thing as "story" meaning a deliberately plotted, crafted and edited narrative presented in a dramatic or literary form.



Why this attempt at conflation persists is all to do with Hollywood envy and generalised search for artistic legitimacy. It's a deliberate confusion of terms to try and prove that black=white because white seems legitimate but black seems somehow inferior.



It's that sense of inferiority that is the problem. We lack the language to define our own legitimacy, we borrow the language from somewhere else, and it makes a bad fit. But we keep banging on it anyway and never really improving on what we make because the fundamental conception behind it is simply unreal.



So when I say "games are not a storytelling medium" I am quite specific: They're not and never will be interactive movies. They're worlds, and that's a whole different way of thinking....



And then you said this:



...All action -- implied or actual -- over time or space is narrative...



To which I say "No, it's not". Regardless, this position is a logical dead-end and here's why:



1. If what you say is true then the act of playing a game is as "narrative" as the act of getting out of bed in the morning and eating some breakfast. Since all such actions are equal, it follows that the game imparts no special extra narrative sauce, and thus a game is no more narrative than eating toast.



2. If what you say is false, then narrative actually involves some construction to become a story, and it follows that this construction must happen post-action. Stories are created after the event, they are not the event itself and the act of creating the story is one of elaboration and excision for the benefit of telling someone else. Either way that's still not a game, as the action of playing a game is real time. To tell someone else a story of what happened in your game is the same as telling them a story of what happened on the way to work: You'll filter out the boring parts and enhance the interesting parts.



Thus, either way, action is action and the self-creating story is a meaningless idea. It has no verifiable reality and is purely a theoretical syllogism trying to legitimise an idea of game and story. It is thus perfectly circular.



To your Chess example, for instance, I would say they are simply playing. The narrative of a game of chess comes afterward, and is an exercise in summary, excision and elaboration. The "story" of the game probably comprises broad strokes, descriptions of gambit, and the key move that turned the game. Not the moment-by-moment recitation of all moves.



This also applies to my games of Starcraft. The story is not the playing, it's what I told people about what happened to during play that was interesting later. Starcraft itself is not imparting a story to me moment to moment any more than my going to make a cup of tea and considering a bacon sandwich for lunch (which I am doing at this very moment) is imparting a story to me. Similar examples apply to GTA4, Braid, Demon's Souls etc.



--- Elevation and Worlds ---



To be fair, I haven't really clearly defined what I mean by "worlds". Tetris is a world as much as New Austin is a world. Where they differ is:



1. Perspective

2. Point of contact (how you control it)

3. Extensibility of mechanic

4. Pressure

5. Style

6. Etc



The mode of games as I propose it is one where, whether it be utterly abstract or deliciously detailed, the game places the controller in the player's hand and embodies that hand to perform actions under pressure to win. That is what games are.



A game is Jack Palance in Shane (to rob Bill Hicks's joke) inviting you to pick up the gun. If you pick it up, you must shoot.

Josh Foreman
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This is a fantastic debate that ought to be preserved for posterity. Seriously.

Darby McDevitt
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@ Tadhg K



Well Tadhg, there's a lot to respond to here, but I don't think I'm up for it right now. It would be too tiring to go over what I perceive as a misuse of Aristotelian poetics in some of your other discussions on the Del Toro board --namely, that they provide us with an immutable aesthetic cage, and that this is the only form you are willing to consider as 'story'. This just doesn't hold water. But there you go. If you want to say games will never achieve an Aristotelian unity, i'm with you. But if you claim (as you do) that this is equivalent to saying games can never have a narrative, i'm not. I'll throw out two recent games -- Flower and Limbo. Both have clear narratives, authored in these cases by the designers. Neither one says a word, neither one has a hint of imposed exposition. Here, the worlds' themselves tell the story. This narrative is merely one element, of course, and it is not the foundational element either. But it is a piece of the mosaic.



I'm taking a wild stab here, but it sounds like you are fairly confident that there is an isomorphic psychological link between the way humans "intrinsically are" and the various aesthetics we create, the Greek arc being paramount. And judging by your dismissive tone whenever anyone doubts the fecundity of the Greek Arc, I doubt arguing any alternatives would sway you. Indeed, because this single point seems form the entire bedrock of your objections to "game narratives" ... and because I don't find aristotle terribly interesting (I don't for example, place a premium on events over people, nor do I find the archaic stipulation of unity of time, place, and action relatable to the experience of the post-modern man) I'd rather not wade too deeply into those waters.



It is, however, quite interesting to agree with someone in principle, but disagree about the qualities of that principle … I’m not sure why you spent so much time outlining your distaste for Red Dead’s presentation here. I thought it was pretty clear that you and I were in agreement on this front in theory. Both of us have a palpable distaste for the clumsy bifurcation of gameplay and story that plagues so many games these days. Where we disagree, however, is what it means to “contain a narrative”, in specific, and how to avoid silly infusions of it (whether by elimination of it altogether, or by transformation).



You seem to be quite an idealist in this fight, hoping that, with a bit of passion, developers and the game playing public will suddenly and with great enthusiasm throw off their love of these ubiquitous Story-Game hybrids and dive into a pure “World”. I welcome such games with open arms too. But I remained unconvinced that this will eliminates narratives in cases where representation is high. I heartily believe people will impose narratives to the death. I would encouraged you to give examples of just the sort of experiences your are talking about. I note with some amusement that in your replies to me, and to the Del Toro forum, you typically avoid giving examples of what you feel are successful games. I count Tetris and Bejeweled... am I missing any?



Also, your suggestion to tear out the story in RDR and leave only the gameplay is not a terribly satisfying suggestion. Perhaps it was unserious? But if not, why don’t you elaborate how this surgery might improve the overall experience?

Darby McDevitt
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Oh, and this. One more reason for fearing all discussion on matters of aesthetics will prove fruitless:



"Some games intrinsically don't work because - like the art film - they rest on ideas about the audience and how it might react if pushed in a direction that don't exist in reality."



Like "the art film"? That's just lazy, Mr. Kelly. Pray tell me, what are the characteristics of "the art film"? If you say "deviation from the Greek arc" or some such hooey, then we're breaking up. Zzz

Tadhg Kelly
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@ Darby McDevitt



What I often encounter in this kind of debate (especially with a game writer) is that tempers start to flare just a little bit. I'm sensing a bit of annoyance from your last two replies.



This is understandable. From a certain perspective it looks like what I'm saying is "game writers, your contribution is meaningless, go home" but actually I'm not. Writing is very important to great game world creation, and its use can make the difference between a memorable experience and a forgettable one. It's just that game writing works best within a "world" context. Here's some examples:



1. In Starcraft, every time that you click on a unit they say something. Click on them ten times and they say various things. And, as an added in-joke, they eventually go a bit crazy if you over-click them. Every one of these lines is an opportunity to subtly reinforce the game world, whether through solemnity (A Protoss zealot saying "My Life for Aiur!") or something more comedic (The hassled voice of the SCV pilot). All of that is quality writing, and all lifts the game up significantly.



2. In Grand Theft Auto, the radio track of commentators making observations, fake advertisements, laugh-out loud funny one liners and so on adds hugely to the experience. Again, great quality writing.



3. In Half Life, many of the characters have lines, little asides, random things they say at intervals and so on which ground you in the environment. Half Life also has one of the best opening sequences ever with the Black Mesa introduction spiel. Where so many poorer games try to "set the scene" through exposition to to-camera cut scenes, Half Life does it through discovery.



4. In Deus Ex, there is a lot of use of discoverable writing. This means hacking into terminals to read emails, finding books, etc. These little snippets (of which there are many) serve a game function in providing access codes and the like. But they also portray little dramas (such as office politics bickering) that round out the world.



5. In Mass Effect, by far the best written part of the game is the background codex. As you travel through the game you essentially "collect" history and get a sense of different races, planets and technologies.



6. In Rez, little bitz and bobs of text about connecting to servers and the like give a sense of hacking into something. Later, in Area 5, this is magnified in the transition between levels, giving the sense that you're unlocking something important.



7. In Halo, a lot of the characters that you fight with or against have little one-liner expressions that capture their whole personality in a nutshell. Whether it's one of the small Covenant chaps running away from you crying "he's behind you!" to the marines suddenly spouting a bit of philosophy, it all sinks in.



8. In Left 4 Dead, the four main characters have little bits of dialogue and exchanges that tell you game information ("one more hit like that and you're done") but also interplay between the characters. These come at random times and you don't hear them all in one sitting, giving you reason to come back.



9. In Portal, the voice of the computer, the discovery that there is cake, that the cake is a lie, and so on continue to portray a not-quite-right feeling to all your lab rat experiments. Fantastic game writing.



So in a sense, great game writing is asset-driven and discoverable. It shines when it serves to fill out the portrait of the world. A GTA without the radio feels oddly sterile (try it, turn off the radio and play the game, suddenly it lacks something), a Portal without the computer voice would just be a technical puzzle. None of these examples of writing are "telling a story". They're filling out a world, making it breathe life. That's what game writing is supposed to do, not get wrapped up in trying to make a movie that you play.



...It would be too tiring to go over what I perceive as a misuse of Aristotelian poetics in some of your other discussions on the Del Toro board --namely, that they provide us with an immutable aesthetic cage, and that this is the only form you are willing to consider as 'story'...



As I said, I think such conflations are intellectually interesting, but the reality test of "story" has remained more or less unchanged. What's going on here is simply that a lot of good people such as yourself are wishing that games were the Hollywood-beating medium, a sort of ur-medium to overcome all media, and by extension crown game designers and writers as the artists of the new age.



My point is that game designers and writers already are the artists of the new age, but what that art is and how it functions are not an ur-medium, but instead a medium. Like any medium, it has rules. While the film maker might consider the conventions of narrative chaffing to their expression, those limits are inherent to how an audience perceives and will not be overcome no matter how many Mulholland Drives are made. While some musicians love to play with free jazz and break apart the constraints of harmony with deliberate cacophony, the music listening audience's perspective does not change and still responds to harmony, rhythm, "in tune", verse and chorus.



All media has its avant garde audience too. Free jazz has its advocates. David Lynch has his fans. Avant garde is vital in any artistic medium because it helps to form new perspectives that are reintroduced to the form. As an example, free jazz has helped some musicians discover some aspect of their music which they then have brought back into their work. Free verse poetry has uncovered some inversions of language that filled out regular poetry (the beat poetry of Ginsberg, for instance). David Lynch provides arresting visual tutoring that has expanded the language of film and helped many other film-makers craft better stories, still told in the conventional form but with exciting new twists.



This need to believe in storytelling in games is a crutch. You don't need it, it's not really a functional part of the form, and it's not artistically efficient. The accusation that most game stories could be radically shortened with no loss makes game writers angry because it's true. It seems a slap in the face. My point is to get over the sting of that slap and instead look at how game writing *does* work, and then use it. Like the musician learning lessons from free jazz, by all means learn lessons from outside works. But bring them back into the form rather than pretending that a linguistic mangling of Aristotle somehow changes reality through justification alone.

Tadhg Kelly
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@ Darby McDevitt.



...Well Tadhg, there's a lot to respond to here, but I don't think I'm up for it right now. It would be too tiring to go over what I perceive as a misuse of Aristotelian poetics in some of your other discussions on the Del Toro board --namely, that they provide us with an immutable aesthetic cage, and that this is the only form you are willing to consider as 'story'...



As I inferred already, this whole line of argument is trying to find an answer by restating a question in a way that can be answered, and thus answering a different question. Since it turns out that game and "traditional" story don't mesh, thinks the game-story advocate, the solution is to redefine "story" into something that is compatible and then use that to reverse-justify everything. That's where the "everything is narrative" idea comes from.



However all that happens, as I demonstrated, is that a perfectly circular and un-examinable set of ideas emerge. Philosophically it's entertaining. In reality, it's basically nonsense, by which I mean it makes no sense rather than stupid or dumb.



...This just doesn't hold water. But there you go. If you want to say games will never achieve an Aristotelian unity, i'm with you. But if you claim (as you do) that this is equivalent to saying games can never have a narrative, i'm not. I'll throw out two recent games -- Flower and Limbo. Both have clear narratives, authored in these cases by the designers. Neither one says a word, neither one has a hint of imposed exposition. Here, the worlds' themselves tell the story. This narrative is merely one element, of course, and it is not the foundational element either. But it is a piece of the mosaic...



No, again, you're trying to find a way to squeeze that "story" word in somewhere. Limbo is an extremely lovely and spooky game. It is portraying a world. It is also, at the same time, a platform game. It is not doing anything fundamentally different from Super Mario World, but rather is providing a compelling and differently paced presentation. It has the same pressure (to solve levels), the same kinds of mechanics. So, like my assertion of how romcoms and sci-fi are worlds apart on content but the same on form, the same applies here.



As for Flower, the same is true. It's a presentationally exotic game, a wonderful idea. It is also, at the same time, essentially the same game as Pilotwings. Different presentation, pace and world. Same form. These are not "narratives" and they are not "stories". They're worlds in which we play. That's what games are.



...I'm taking a wild stab here, but it sounds like you are fairly confident that there is an isomorphic psychological link between the way humans "intrinsically are" and the various aesthetics we create, the Greek arc being paramount. And judging by your dismissive tone whenever anyone doubts the fecundity of the Greek Arc, I doubt arguing any alternatives would sway you. Indeed, because this single point seems form the entire bedrock of your objections to "game narratives" ... and because I don't find aristotle terribly interesting (I don't for example, place a premium on events over people, nor do I find the archaic stipulation of unity of time, place, and action relatable to the experience of the post-modern man) I'd rather not wade too deeply into those waters...



People have an inherent capability to comprehend systemic information, a predisposition to pattern recognition, and a capability to sort by priority according to survival patterns. How humans relate to the arts has not changed in thousands of years because at heart these traits are inherent. That's why Sophocles' story of Oedipus is still understandable and relevant today. The techniques of creating the form have improved radically but the form remains. The form is scale-able.



All other artforms are scale-able. I can make music right now, write a poem or shoot a movie on my iPhone. The principles of those forms are easily accessed. I can design a house, build a 3D model and thus explore the basic principles of architecture. I can create a painting on any surface, make a model from simple clay. I can draw a very bad comic. I can also design a boardgame, make a rudimentary game in Flash. Again, the principles are easily accessed. And so on. Scale-ability is evidence of inherence.



You sound like one of those people who believe that the Uncanny Valley is in fact a Valley and not a Cliff, and that makes your argument essentially a leap of faith. Like animators who believe one day that we will crack the perfectly animated human, your position requires, among other things, that story games be unique among the artforms in needing infinite budgets. That, with enough time and money spent, we will suddenly arrive at an emergent place.



I submit that this position is untenable. If, like with the Uncanny Valley, it were true then we would have started to see some improvement by now. 30 years, a million games and a thousand-fold increase in development budgets are yielding exactly the same story-to-game jarring experiences, bum-numbing narrative and tedium that it ever has. Meanwhile all the best games are kicking ass because they are reducing or ignoring all of that in favour of creating game worlds in which we play. In pining for the art form of games to be something else, the narrativists are missing that the actual art form of games has already evolved greatly. It's just not the art that they thought it would be.



...It is, however, quite interesting to agree with someone in principle, but disagree about the qualities of that principle … I’m not sure why you spent so much time outlining your distaste for Red Dead’s presentation here. I thought it was pretty clear that you and I were in agreement on this front in theory. Both of us have a palpable distaste for the clumsy bifurcation of gameplay and story that plagues so many games these days. Where we disagree, however, is what it means to “contain a narrative”, in specific, and how to avoid silly infusions of it (whether by elimination of it altogether, or by transformation)...



I talked about it because you'd brought it up in your article, so it seemed a present example to speak on. I have no special reason for singling it out and I certainly like the game - when it's not trying to pretend to be a film anyway.



...You seem to be quite an idealist in this fight, hoping that, with a bit of passion, developers and the game playing public will suddenly and with great enthusiasm throw off their love of these ubiquitous Story-Game hybrids and dive into a pure “World”. I welcome such games with open arms too. But I remained unconvinced that this will eliminates narratives in cases where representation is high. I heartily believe people will impose narratives to the death. I would encouraged you to give examples of just the sort of experiences your are talking about. I note with some amusement that in your replies to me, and to the Del Toro forum, you typically avoid giving examples of what you feel are successful games. I count Tetris and Bejeweled... am I missing any?...



Funnily, I think of my position as grounded. I think that the concept of the self-created story is essentially an un-challengeable flight of idealism. No offence intended.



I tend to think that a lot of studios will continue to beat that narrative drum regardless of what is said here because a lot of developers either want the story-game to be real, or a lot of marketers think that expensive games need story footage to sell as game trailers. The conventional wisdom is as such, and it will not change quickly.



But there's no reason not to have this discussion to help evolve the ideas of development going forward. In time, perhaps we will develop that critical language that helps us legitimise our art in our own eyes. I think that discussions like this one help to do that, regardless of the result.



...Also, your suggestion to tear out the story in RDR and leave only the gameplay is not a terribly satisfying suggestion. Perhaps it was unserious? But if not, why don’t you elaborate how this surgery might improve the overall experience?...



Sure.



I think most of the cut-scenes could be radically simplified and told in-world. As a random example, there's a mission where you help Bonnie break in a couple of horses. It is preceded by a several-minute-long meeting with her father, discussions on the federal government, and so on. All of it besides the point. I think that could be shaved to walking up to Bonnie and her saying "let's go break in some horses" and off you go. I think you could meet the father on his horse during the mission and, Half-Life-esque, he could be babbling away about federalism. You are then free to listen or ignore as you choose. The writing is then discoverable and framign portraiture rather than imposed and serving no purpose other than simply stopping play.



It's an off-the-cuff example, but pretty straightforward.



...

Oh, and this. One more reason for fearing all discussion on matters of aesthetics will prove fruitless:



"Some games intrinsically don't work because - like the art film - they rest on ideas about the audience and how it might react if pushed in a direction that don't exist in reality."



Like "the art film"? That's just lazy, Mr. Kelly. Pray tell me, what are the characteristics of "the art film"? If you say "deviation from the Greek arc" or some such hooey, then we're breaking up. Zzz...



I think I've addressed this above and in other places, talkign about anti-narrative films, Koyaanisqatsi, and the corollary example of anti-mechanic in games.

Tomiko Gun
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@Tadhg Kelly

Why are you so adamant for people to agree with your view? Regardless of what you say, for many people, video games can be a medium for telling stories.



So let the people who believe this do their jobs, and you go back de-evolving video games as meaningless time sinks devoid of any value aka social games.

Tadhg Kelly
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@Tomiko Gun



Because that view is damaging and holding back the development of the art form that is games by internally reducing it to a second class citizen of Hollywood. I find it interesting that you've gone to the place of thinking that I mean to "de-evolve" games into time-sink distractions when I've been talking about exactly the opposite thing.



The question I would ask in response is why do you find what I'm writing here threatening?

Ernest Adams
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"Storytelling" does NOT mean a Greek arc drama.



"There are NO great game stories" depends heavily on your definition of "great." Reasonable people will disagree.

Nilson Carroll
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...'"There are NO great game stories" depends heavily on your definition of "great." Reasonable people will disagree.'...



I hope I am reasonable, as I certainly agree with Ernest here. Although I think kids that say FF 7 has the greatest story of all time are full of nonsense, I think there is something to be said about the JRPG story as well as compelling games like LoZ and Metroid.

Vin St John
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I think you point out the root of the problem without identifying it as such - gameplay and story CAN be at odds, when either of them are given enough weight that we fall back on traditional forms of gameplay or traditional forms of story. We end up getting a 'traditionally' crafted narrative with interactive bits (Heavy Rain) or a 'traditionally' crafted game structure with story bits (open world mission games like GTA). These are both ACCEPTABLE but neither achieves the perfect union you're looking for. I would argue that perfect union doesn't necessarily exist but I definitely think there is more room for games like Heavy Rain, and that games like this - which emphasize a story first, and find ways to implement interactivity into that story - have a bright future of improvement ahead of them. I DON'T think it's fair to criticize Heavy Rain for having simple gameplay, when it's not its intention to be more complex - just as one wouldn't criticize Pac Man for having a simple story.

Darby McDevitt
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Tadhg,



Wethinks you're missing the point. There is no such thing as a "traditional story". Many of us are claiming, see, that you haven't come close to justifying this encompassing claim. You just take it as given, and say the rest of us are trying to move the goalposts. Please give us a reason to take your starting premise seriously. I mean, Google has been unsuccessful thus far in helping me locate the source of your fundementalism.



Until that time i will repeat: you are in error. And if one of your premises is flawed, then your conclusion is. Aristotle's poetics are in NO sense a "discovery" of how humans "accurately perceive". The Greek arc is merely one of many aesthetic justifications of human activity specific to a bygone cultural and political view of the world. That it still has influence means only that it is appealing. But there are literally millions of books, films, plays, etc that operate according to other forms, and other "ways of knowing". Christian aesthetics, Marxist aesthetics, Surrealism, Modernism, Romanticism, etc....



As it stands, your repeated insistence that there is an immutable definition of "story" just does not hold. We are not trying to redefine it. It was certainly a Structuralist fad in the 50s and 60s to claim that ALL stories had a universally shared structure -- proponent of Joseph Campbell perhaps? -- but this has now fallen out of fashion. Is this the seed of your confidence? Well, ideas have changed, dear man, and many of us don't share yours. Perhaps more investigations in fields like Narrative Psychology will bear some of these older ideas out, perhaps not.



However, your implied notion that the only true narratives we can consider must come out of some one-to-one correspondence with "how we really see" is only your implicit admission that you are some species of behaviorst. You have left no room for a cultural meme-level mutation of the idea of story, and instead cede everything to the genes. I won't accept that, because its probably incorrect.



Now OF COURSE, game mechanics alone cannot tell a story. But video games are not game-mechanics alone. They are a multi-media form, of which game mechanics are a major part . But added visual, textural, and musical elements bring the possibility of narrative to the whole. Just as a song can be solely instrumental, adding lyrics can give it a narrative momentum. Perhaps here is where Tadhg Kelly pops up and says "but the MUSIC is not narrative" to which we say... yes, but we are looking at the whole work, sir, not the parts. The way you dissect Flower and Limbo here is telling: you totally avoid speaking of their visual, representational content, and stare -- as Neo sees the Matrix -- at the mechanics beneath the hood. Fine. But those mechanics alone are not the game.



We live in the post-modern world, and today enjoy many Narrative varieties: Allegory, Myth, Fairy Tale, Fable, Parable, Just-So stories, Lyrical poetry, Noh drama, Kabuki, the Epic form, and countless others, ... these are all aesthetically different from the Greek tragic form of narrative, and intellectually justified in their own way. From my limited experience with Flower, my initial conclusion was that it unfolds in the form of a silent allegory -- man v nature. The same can be said for, say, a stained glass window in a Cathedral. If you recall your history, these windows were made specifically for illiterate parishoners to learn biblical stories. Certainly video games are excellent candidates for telling stories in this mode.



Lastly, if I felt you had a good grasp of the history and variety of cinema, I might engage you here too. But I'm getting the impression you don't. So you saw Koyaanisqatsi at university like the rest of us, great. But to set up a binary, as you seem to, between films with "traditional narratives" and "arty sensibilities" is insulting, dull, and lacking in intellectual and imaginative rigor. I suggest you watch the Masyle's brother's film "Salesman" back to back with Chris Marker's "Sans Soleil"... then we'll talk about form and narrative.



Oh also. Ulysses is not a novel. Don't eff with me here. Joyce and I were tight in grad school, back in the Big Smoke.

Darby McDevitt
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Also, I feel this paragraph is the seed of a huge confusion:



"People have an inherent capability to comprehend systemic information, a predisposition to pattern recognition, and a capability to sort by priority according to survival patterns. How humans relate to the arts has not changed in thousands of years because at heart these traits are inherent. That's why Sophocles' story of Oedipus is still understandable and relevant today. The techniques of creating the form have improved radically but the form remains. The form is scale-able. "



The leap from "pattern recognition" to "Greek arc" is wholly, completely, entirely unjustified -- the latter is in no way a "scaled form" of the former. The greek arc is built on a specific cultural and political set of assumptions.



Elsewhere, you are mixing your terminology . In some cases you refer to Traditional stories, in others, the Greek Arc. These typically do not refer to the same thing.



And this paragraph:



"You sound like one of those people who believe that the Uncanny Valley is in fact a Valley and not a Cliff, and that makes your argument essentially a leap of faith. Like animators who believe one day that we will crack the perfectly animated human, your position requires, among other things, that story games be unique among the artforms in needing infinite budgets. That, with enough time and money spent, we will suddenly arrive at an emergent place."



Doesn't describe a single belief of mine, sorry. As I believe I have hinted at, games like ICO and Limbo and Flower are my ideas of games with wondeful, ideal narratives. This is direction i want to see more games trend -- and these are the kinds of games i want to write. Or, alternatively, help craft games that allow players to exercise more meaningful creativity, as in Chess and some elements of Spore (alas, a failure). So no i don't believe that "story games" need to improve in any way insofar as Form is concerned. I just want their subject matter and theme to be more interesting. Not about killing, but about something subtler and more human.



Lastly:



"Funnily, I think of my position as grounded. I think that the concept of the self-created story is essentially an un-challengeable flight of idealism. No offence intended."



You only see it as idealism because you don't accept (or understand) what I mean by self-created story. So there's not idealism here. I believe this already happens in any game that allows creative expression within its own bounds (the development of style). It's not some future ideal. It's happening now.



Anyway, its clear to me after reading this sentence....



"What's going on here is simply that a lot of good people such as yourself are wishing that games were the Hollywood-beating medium, a sort of ur-medium to overcome all media, and by extension crown game designers and writers as the artists of the new age."



... that you have utterly failed to understand my view of game narratives, or I have failed to communicate it. All I have written is contrary to this impulse you suggest, and contrary to what I feel a good game writer's job should be. I had hoped my article would communicate the idea that a fundemental "re-tooling" of the writer's job was in order ... and that writers should focus more on crafting mature scenarios and actions, as in pantomime or silent film, etc. and less on dialog rich narratives. (See Samuel Beckett's Act Without Words I and II for example.) The examples I give at the end of my article should have made this obvious... Braid, Ico, Chibi Robo, The Sims....



Anyway, I think I will end this here. Since I reject your definition of story, and feel it has not in fact past the "reality test", (whatever that means), and since my position and ideas have been mischaracterized so grossly in your head, i don't think its worth any further discussion.

Tadhg Kelly
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@Ernest Adams

..."Storytelling" does NOT mean a Greek arc drama...



Yes, it does. It always has.



"Story" as a word is applied in a variety of casual language situations (such as in marketing, or to talk about a floor in a building in British English) but "storytelling" means to tell a story. Telling a story involves plot, drama, heroes, arcs, tragedy, comedy and so on. Simply wishing or redefining it to be otherwise does not actually make that wish come true.



Nor does inventing an "everything we do is narrative" construct to explain away the massive incongruities that such redefinitions create. These ideas are not real. Redefinition is all that a lot of people have essentially tried to do, but it is essentially as saying that ground and sky are the same because they are both "matter".



But reality is reality: Games refuse to behave as a storytelling medium no matter how much people assert that they SHOULD be.



..."There are NO great game stories" depends heavily on your definition of "great." Reasonable people will disagree...



Will they indeed? I think this calls for a citation.



There are certainly plenty of fun games to play out there, many with fun game worlds, interesting characters and artistic landscapes. But great stories I can think of none. None have entered the literary canon, none are considered seminal critical works of story-writing, none are taught as part of serious literary theory.



It is certainly plausible to chalk a bulk of game stories up to bad writing, as you yourself did earlier in the thread, but it is unlikely that that case can be applied 100% across the board. An awful lot of games have been developed in the last three decades.



@Nilson Carroll

Really? As games those examples you've cited are all great, but as stories they're blunt and obvious. They have no plot that is not instantly guessable, the player is not a hero (the player's character may at some points speak as a hero but the player himself is not actually being a hero), and the vast majority of the time what the player is doing is completing tasks, upgrading a set of characters, exploring a world and so on. Vast tracts of all of those games involve just playing. There's no story there.



@Vincent St. John

Sorry to disagree (which I seem to be doing a lot) but this exactly the synthesis point that I debated with Darby above and which I said is unreal. In another thread I explained how I played Indigo Prophecy (the forebearer of Heavy Rain) and found it utterly wanting. The problem is that improving the gameplay requires significantly more abstraction, win goals and mechanical challenges, all of which serve to turn a game world into something more systemic. At the same time, staying with the narrative elements and using what amounts to quick time events as a game tool is essentially just a very elaborate page-turning mechanism, one which breaks the flow of the story enough with "interactivity" enough to be very annoying. Result: bum-numbing boredom.



@Darby McDevitt

...There is no such thing as a "traditional story". Many of us are claiming, see, that you haven't come close to justifying this encompassing claim. You just take it as given, and say the rest of us are trying to move the goalposts...



Of course there is, and you ARE trying to move the goalposts. For example, in your article you wrote this: "This obliterated my story arc, but from a design standpoint it was a relatively sensible idea; the game did have a better pace as a result. My rewrites came quickly in the weeks that followed, and I was able to paper over many of the resulting cracks, but the narrative was never as strong as it had been at the outset."



You accept the idea of an arc. You know full well what is meant here, the principles of drama, the fundamentals of plot, the cadence of scene construction. The three-act two-plot-point script format. The Hero's Journey. You know exactly what I'm talking about here, but what you want to do is, as you say, move those goalposts so that those sorts of ideas can also encompass game writing in some fashion. It's a semantic exercise and nothing else to have your cake and eat it also. (but the cake is a lie as we all know).



There is nothing mysterious or hard to grasp about this. It is simply an uncomfortable reality that many of you would rather not face.



...Aristotle's poetics are in NO sense a "discovery" of how humans "accurately perceive". The Greek arc is merely one of many aesthetic justifications of human activity specific to a bygone cultural and political view of the world. That it still has influence means only that it is appealing. But there are literally millions of books, films, plays, etc that operate according to other forms, and other "ways of knowing". Christian aesthetics, Marxist aesthetics, Surrealism, Modernism, Romanticism, etc....



No, this is not correct. What Aristotle and other theorists of the base form of stories talk about is not the overt content (much as a Marxist theory tries to draw out a continuing interplay of a particular kind of drama in all works) or gender interpretation (such as feminist theory) nor a study of mythology vs story (Barthes etc). They are discussing fundamentals.



So, in poetry for example, it is entirely possible to concede that poems need timbre and usually some kind of verse structure (form) and ALSO interpret all poems in a Marxist context. Discussions of fundamentals of poetry are to do with whether poems must rhyme, or whether assonance and alliteration work as techniques. Discussions of feminism in poetry is an analysis of the content of the form, not saying that feminist poems are physically different to other poems.



More in modern times, when Syd Field writes in Screenplay about how a script is constructed, he's not talking about the subjects of those scripts, nor saying that genres of scripts of some kinds of film are differently formed than others. He's saying that script storytelling has various core rules that physically make them work.



The 'arc' idea is a form idea, and is very old, whereas literary theories are content analyses, technique discoveries and such. The 'arc' form of the story form is as old as Gilgamesh and still plays out in everything from episodes of Star Trek Voyager to Inception.



...As it stands, your repeated insistence that there is an immutable definition of "story" just does not hold. We are not trying to redefine it. It was certainly a Structuralist fad in the 50s and 60s to claim that ALL stories had a universally shared structure -- proponent of Joseph Campbell perhaps? -- but this has now fallen out of fashion. Is this the seed of your confidence? Well, ideas have changed, dear man, and many of us don't share yours. Perhaps more investigations in fields like Narrative Psychology will bear some of these older ideas out, perhaps not...



Why has it fallen out of fashion, and with whom? I watched Inception a week ago. It is a very well made three-act two-plot point film, as old in some respects as the hills. It is also the rage of movies at the moment.



I think the Campbellan idea has fallen out of favour only in so far as theorists who are trying to find an all inclusive way of defining stories that somehow make their game writing work, and then only because the realisation has recently dawned that it still isn't. The root of the problem is that no matter how many ways that redefinition has been applied, the actual form of the art is in actuality still exactly the same.



And of course, theorists are welcome to do so. Campbell was himself a theorist after all. Just because he is now dead, however, does not invalidate his ideas automatically. Just because it seems to create something of a creative box for would-be writers who want to be revolutionaries doesn't mean that the constraints he discovered are not real.



In short: redefine all you like. It's not actually changing anything in the real world.



...However, your implied notion that the only true narratives we can consider must come out of some one-to-one correspondence with "how we really see" is only your implicit admission that you are some species of behaviorst. You have left no room for a cultural meme-level mutation of the idea of story, and instead cede everything to the genes. I won't accept that, because its probably incorrect...



That's something to ponder. I think there is some merit to suggest that it is so, that I tend to see the ability of people to comprehend, process and emote to have a behavioural and perceptual component. With no examples of this cultural meme-level mutation of which you speak to refer to, I tend to think that it doesn't exist. That people still relate to stories in much the same way as they ever did and all that's changing is the increasing sophistication of technique.



And also, the same for games.



...Now OF COURSE, game mechanics alone cannot tell a story. But video games are not game-mechanics alone. They are a multi-media form, of which game mechanics are a major part...



I agree with this.



...But added visual, textural, and musical elements bring the possibility of narrative to the whole...



But not this. There are no examples of this working in the real world. They only appear to, at a facile level, bring that possibility. What they actually bring is a supporting role for the world, adding to the portraiture and lifting the game upwards from being just a mechanical bull.



...Just as a song can be solely instrumental, adding lyrics can give it a narrative momentum. Perhaps here is where Tadhg Kelly pops up and says "but the MUSIC is not narrative" to which we say... yes, but we are looking at the whole work, sir, not the parts.....



Yes, a song can be a mini-narrative. If you listen to a song like Dylan's Hurricane, or Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds, this obvious. However what's different between a game and a song? A song is sequential. A game is not. A song is passive (sit, listen, appreciate). A game is active (do, choose, do again, do other thing). For a game to be as a song and be a mini-narrative, it has to pause and be a cut-scene. It has to, in other words, stop being a game.



The reverse is saying "A song is like a game because they both contain music." Of course it's not. For a song to be like a game would require pausing the song and rolling dice or playing a card, the outcome of which then determines whether to resume the song, restart the song, play a different song, and so on. The song would have to stop being a song.



...The way you dissect Flower and Limbo here is telling: you totally avoid speaking of their visual, representational content, and stare -- as Neo sees the Matrix -- at the mechanics beneath the hood. Fine. But those mechanics alone are not the game...



I avoid no such thing. I have spoken at length and repeatedly about the significance of the artistic content of games as portraiture. You are reading "ludologist" into what I've written but I am not a ludologist. You are also reaching for imaginary forces to explain your position.



In short: You are saying that because the tone of the artwork in Limbo is darker than that of Mario World that that makes them not just different games but different forms of game. I say that's just nonsense, and shortchanges not only the contribution of each game but also the discussion of the artistic value of either. It is the same as arguing that two sonnets, one about love and the other about death, are actually different kinds of poem. No, they're not. They're sonnets. It is their SUBJECT which is different.



...We live in the post-modern world, and today enjoy many Narrative varieties: Allegory, Myth, Fairy Tale, Fable, Parable, Just-So stories, Lyrical poetry, Noh drama, Kabuki, the Epic form, and countless others, ... these are all aesthetically different from the Greek tragic form of narrative, and intellectually justified in their own way. From my limited experience with Flower, my initial conclusion was that it unfolds in the form of a silent allegory -- man v nature. The same can be said for, say, a stained glass window in a Cathedral. If you recall your history, these windows were made specifically for illiterate parishoners to learn biblical stories. Certainly video games are excellent candidates for telling stories in this mode...



Oh we don't live in a world anywhere near as post-modern as academia thinks it is. Aesthetics vary far and wide but the core forms remain as-was. This is all a tremendous dodge that you're creating to avoid talking through the examples that I raised in my previous posts, or addressing such things as my point about your self-created-narrative logical dead end. You're dancing around definitions and side examples to avoid the debate.



...Lastly, if I felt you had a good grasp of the history and variety of cinema, I might engage you here too. But I'm getting the impression you don't. So you saw Koyaanisqatsi at university like the rest of us, great. But to set up a binary, as you seem to, between films with "traditional narratives" and "arty sensibilities" is insulting, dull, and lacking in intellectual and imaginative rigor. I suggest you watch the Masyle's brother's film "Salesman" back to back with Chris Marker's "Sans Soleil"... then we'll talk about form and narrative...



I have thus far avoided in engaging in this personalised attack vector of your posts because I think they are both wide of the mark and betray a lack of counter-argument. "How can you POSSIBLY SAY THAT?" defences generally indicate that the debate has run out of steam. Soon we'll be calling each other Hitler and Godwin will smile once again.



Better to talk about what I've actually written in the debate on the function of the avant garde and its importance rather than start into this "Well didn't WE go to University boyo" stuff.



...Oh also. Ulysses is not a novel. Don't eff with me here. Joyce and I were tight in grad school, back in the Big Smoke...



It IS a novel. It is the greatest novel of the 20th century in fact, the epic retelling of the story of a man living his ordinary life.



@Darby McDevitt (pt 2)

...The leap from "pattern recognition" to "Greek arc" is wholly, completely, entirely unjustified -- the latter is in no way a "scaled form" of the former. The greek arc is built on a specific cultural and political set of assumptions...



Pattern recognition plays a huge function in comprehension and cognition, and its hardwired into our brains. It's also why storytelling, much as music, games and other artforms, appear to have universal qualities. As an example, the game of Go is understandable and playable by cultures all around the world. American pop music is comprehendable (such as it is) all over the world also because the basics of rhythm, verse and chorus feed into basic ability to recognise the mathematical pattern of music. Westerners can play Japanese games, Easterners can appreciate the Mona Lisa, and so on.



Story arcs are universal structures, much the same. A story from one culture is recognisable as a story in another culture and much the same. That's what Campbell realised/popularised with the Hero with a Thousand Faces. He realised that, essentially, he was seeing the same thing again and again.



You've also misunderstood that point about scalability. What that refers to is budget. You do not need a vast amount of money to prove that the form of film can tell a story, nor to design a game with an interesting world. The forms are financially scalable. However many of the people who advocate your "some day, synthesis" point often argue that what is needed is better AI, graphics, physics, larger game worlds and so on. In short, non-scalability.



...Doesn't describe a single belief of mine, sorry. As I believe I have hinted at, games like ICO and Limbo and Flower are my ideas of games with wondeful, ideal narratives. This is direction i want to see more games trend -- and these are the kinds of games i want to write. Or, alternatively, help craft games that allow players to exercise more meaningful creativity, as in Chess and some elements of Spore (alas, a failure). So no i don't believe that "story games" need to improve in any way insofar as Form is concerned. I just want their subject matter and theme to be more interesting. Not about killing, but about something subtler and more human...



Doesn't it? How about this:



"Building further on this tantalizing synthesis between narrative and mechanics will require a lot of difficult, dedicated thought by people willing to look outside the game industry's established clichés for inspiration, and it will take a good deal of experimentation and a lot of failures to develop mechanics that provide new experiences in novel contexts."



That sounds like "money" to me.



You have hinted at those games being the ideal. I have said that those games and games like them are great examples of game art. But I've also pretty much destroyed your assertion that they are narratives. Not out of meanness, but because I think "narrative" is the wrong lens to be using here. I think there is a lot in this debate that we are vociferously agreeing on though. As I said in my first long post, it is interesting to me that your article comes around to this "worlds" view of thinking. Now if you could just make that last leap and lose the "story" lens then you'd be set.



...You only see it as idealism because you don't accept (or understand) what I mean by self-created story. So there's not idealism here. I believe this already happens in any game that allows creative expression within its own bounds (the development of style). It's not some future ideal. It's happening now...



I contend that I understand it, perhaps better than you do. It's an idea that has been knocking around for years. I also contend that my basic logical breakdown of how the idea is circular and redundant still stands. I think you owe me an answer on that one rather than simply asserting that I must not accept nor understand it. I've accepted, understood, analysed and then found wanting the concept. It leads to dead ends.



...All I have written is contrary to this impulse you suggest, and contrary to what I feel a good game writer's job should be. I had hoped my article would communicate the idea that a fundemental "re-tooling" of the writer's job was in order ... and that writers should focus more on crafting mature scenarios and actions, as in pantomime or silent film, etc. and less on dialog rich narratives. (See Samuel Beckett's Act Without Words I and II for example.) The examples I give at the end of my article should have made this obvious... Braid, Ico, Chibi Robo, The Sims....



Anyway, I think I will end this here. Since I reject your definition of story, and feel it has not in fact past the "reality test", (whatever that means), and since my position and ideas have been mischaracterized so grossly in your head, i don't think its worth any further discussion...



Your article does go toward retooling in part, which is why I commented on it, but not really far enough. A reality test is simply "Are there examples of this idea in the real world that stand up to scrutiny".



PS: If you'd like to continue the debate more one-to-one rather than clogging up gamasutra, you can reach me at tadhgk@gmail.com

David Tarris
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"@Ernest Adams

...'Storytelling' does NOT mean a Greek arc drama...



Yes, it does. It always has.



'Story' as a word is applied in a variety of casual language situations (such as in marketing, or to talk about a floor in a building in British English) but 'storytelling' means to tell a story. Telling a story involves plot, drama, heroes, arcs, tragedy, comedy and so on. Simply wishing or redefining it to be otherwise does not actually make that wish come true."



Show me the part where every dictionary defines it that way, and maybe you'll have a point. However, let's just glance at a site like Dictionary.com.



"Storytelling -

the telling or writing of stories."



Okay, how about "story":



"Story -

1. a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.

2. a fictitious tale, shorter and less elaborate than a novel.

3. such narratives or tales as a branch of literature: song and story.

4. the plot or succession of incidents of a novel, poem, drama, etc.: The characterizations were good, but the story was weak.

5. a narration of an incident or a series of events or an example of these that is or may be narrated, as an anecdote, joke, etc.

6. a narration of the events in the life of a person or the existence of a thing, or such events as a subject for narration: the story of medicine; the story of his life.

7. a report or account of a matter; statement or allegation: The story goes that he rejected the offer.

8. news story.

9. a lie or fabrication: What he said about himself turned out to be a story.

10. Obsolete . history."



Ten definitions, and none of them define the word as you claim it is "universally acknowledged by higher literary powers to be".



Maybe we can find the part where it "always has" in the word origins section:



"account of some happening," early 13c., "narrative of important events or celebrated persons of the past," from O.Fr. estorie , from L.L. storia and L. historia "history, account, tale, story" (see history). Meaning "recital of true events" first recorded late 14c.; sense of "narrative of fictitious events meant to entertain" is from c.1500. Not differentiated from history till 1500s. As a euphemism for "a lie" it dates from 1690s. Meaning "newspaper article" is from 1892. Story-teller is from 1709. Story-line first attested 1941. That's another story "that requires different treatment" is attested from 1818. Story of my life "sad truth" first recorded 1938.



Okay, an "account of some happening". How does this relate to strict Greek poetic standards?



Not trying to gang up on you here, but I really don't see what you're getting at with all this endless rambling.

Vin St John
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@Tadhg Kelly

"Sorry to disagree (which I seem to be doing a lot) but this exactly the synthesis point that I debated with Darby above and which I said is unreal. In another thread I explained how I played Indigo Prophecy (the forebearer of Heavy Rain) and found it utterly wanting. The problem is that improving the gameplay requires significantly more abstraction, win goals and mechanical challenges, all of which serve to turn a game world into something more systemic. At the same time, staying with the narrative elements and using what amounts to quick time events as a game tool is essentially just a very elaborate page-turning mechanism, one which breaks the flow of the story enough with "interactivity" enough to be very annoying.



It sounds like we *agree*, then, that in these games the story is often at odds with the gameplay. One can either have limited gameplay that suits the more carefully crafted story, or a story that provides a great set up for some iterative, repeatable game mechanics. I don't like speaking in generalities but this is how most games work (favoring one of these things or the other) and I tend to think that most experimentation and striving to find that 'perfect synthesis' is *worth* it, I don't think we'll ever get there - I think we'll just find new ways to improve story-games and to improve game-stories. I haven't played Indigo Prophecy but I don't think you're alone in having gripes with how it was put together, but it sounds like the same criticisms could be made of Heavy Rain. I wouldn't say that Heavy Rain was "bum-numbingly boring" but the issues I had with it came from concerns over its narrative, not its gameplay, and I think that's telling.



What I like about this idea of games having two separate strengths is that I don't have to buy into anyone's idea of what the "ideal game story" is - is it emergent narrative? Is it explicit or implicity? Is it authored by designer and experienced by player, or is crafted by millions of players at once? Is it branching, linear, dynamic, yadda yadda - these all sound like perfectly legitimate ways that stories are told. Mad Libs are a very rudimentary form of interactive storytelling - but that doesn't mean that a sophisticated extrapolation of Mad Libs (see: elements of Final Fantasy, Scribblenauts, Spore, Oregon Trail) are equally limited and mundane.

Tadhg Kelly
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@ David Tarris



We discussed this in the other thread, as it happens. A quick copy-and-paste follows.

Josh Foreman wrote:



...I think the real sticking point is in the definitions: specifically 'story'. I get these from MW:



1 archaic a : history 1 b : history 3

2 a : an account of incidents or events b : a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question c : anecdote; especially : an amusing one

3 a : a fictional narrative shorter than a novel; specifically : short story b : the intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work

4 : a widely circulated rumor

5 : lie, falsehood

6 : legend, romance

7 : a news article or broadcast

8 : matter, situation



You seem to be working with 3:b, and many others here (myself partially included) are using 2:a-c and maybe even a little 6 and 8.



When I speak of a "new kind of story" I don't think I am tying to pound a square peg into a round hole. I'm saying there is the potential for our medium, once matured and properly technologically outfitted, to add a new definition to Merriam-Webster. I don't think it's a target we can articulate and shoot for at this point, but I feel like it's out there, waiting to evolve...



To which I responded:



...Actually I think what tends to happen with the use of the word "story" is that it is used in a dual fashion. For example, I understand what you're saying about, say, the use of the word as a shorthand for a generalised description of events (and indeed point to the explanation I gave about marketing stories above). Story is a word used in regular language in a wide variety of situations.



However the dual use comes from then stapling that to "Storytelling" and saying that because "story" is a word with a wide variety of uses that it must follow that "storytelling" can be applied to all of them. And if a game can be described as a situation, thus a "story" by one possible definition, then the principles and artistic conventions of storytelling must be applicable.



However, "storytelling", especially in entertainment and literature, has a very specific meaning. It means a Greek arc drama. All that's actually going on here is that a number of very well intentioned people are trying to conflate two entirely different things together through the use of a common word, but it's a a bridge that has no existence in reality. "Story" meaning a simple recounting of events is not the same thing as "story" meaning a marketing term to describe a sales tool for products, and is also not the same thing as "story" meaning a deliberately plotted, crafted and edited narrative presented in a dramatic or literary form.



Why this attempt at conflation persists is all to do with Hollywood envy and generalised search for artistic legitimacy. It's a deliberate confusion of terms to try and prove that black=white because white seems legitimate but black seems somehow inferior...

Tadhg Kelly
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@ Vincent St John



I understand where you're coming from, but from an evolution-of-development and self-esteem-of-developers perspective, I've come to the conclusion that the middle path you advocate isn't really helping any more. It would be had there been any progress at all toward achieving that ideal, but there hasn't. Meanwhile the development community agonises and quarrels over whether what they do is art at all, or legitimate, and meanwhile the culture of games is stagnated and growing slowly obsolete.



So, although it's not accommodating, I think the time has come to blow up the old conventions and develop a newer understanding of games that's grounded, progressive and legitimising on its own terms rather than deploying the same old dead-end tropes that have been hanging around since 1990.

Ernest Adams
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One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is not a Greek arc drama. Nor is Woolf's The Waves. Nor is much of the modernist and postmodernist oeuvre.



If you assert that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is not a storyteller who does storytelling, then your definition of the meanings of those terms is absurd. If you accept that he is, then you must accept that storytelling is not limited to Greek arc drama.



I said in my 2004 GDC lecture that while our technology is cutting-edge in the game industry, our storytelling is literally 1000 years out of date. We're essentially still trying to do Beowulf. There's nothing wrong with Beowulf, but stories have moved far, far beyond it, and beyond Greek arc drama.

Tadhg Kelly
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@Ernest Adams



One Hundred Years of Solitude is not a *single* arc drama. It is several of them interwoven into a multi-generational tale. You could say the same about Pulp Fiction. It's not a three-act movie, it's four one-acts woven together into a tapestry. Each of those one-acts is an arc. As an other example, Alan Bleasdale's "Boys From the Black Stuff" is not a single arc drama, but the loose interweaving of the story arcs of five characters in Liverpool. Ditto Short Cuts and Gosford Park by Robert Altman. Or the Canterbury Tales.



All that these easily-understood examples show is that you can have several-arc stories, and achieve some kind of portraiture. You can also have nested arcs, such as Dan Simmons' Hyperion in which six characters recount their tale of how they have travelled to a planet, but also hinting at a greater overall arc. The same concept is used in modern TV writing, where you have a series arc, an episodic arc, sub-plots etc. They call them A, B and C arcs. Alan Moore's Watchmen is also a nested-arc story. As is A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin. And indeed, many novels.



These are all simple examples and they fit just fine inside the arc metaphor. It is not absurd at all.



A more challenging example is a film like Memento which, by seeming to jump backward in time might be posing an alternative to "arc", but actually it isn't. It's a clever trick concealing a straightforward mystery. Another is "The Thin Red Line", about Guadalcanal. It is often referred to as visual poetry because it has no central plot and few characters to follow in the traditional mode. It is also, unreservedly, a mess of a film as a result. Visually beautiful, challenging in a Palm D'Or avant-garde way, but also the film equivalent of free jazz: An interesting but often deadly boring experiment because in lacking in arc it has no character development.



...I said in my 2004 GDC lecture that while our technology is cutting-edge in the game industry, our storytelling is literally 1000 years out of date. We're essentially still trying to do Beowulf. There's nothing wrong with Beowulf, but stories have moved far, far beyond it, and beyond Greek arc drama...



We really haven't. Your assertion that this is so is completely wrong, and is confusing technique (Memento's time-line trick, Marquez's tapestry of stories) with form (a story arc). In the old days stories had a beginning, middle and end. In the new days, they still have a beginning, middle and end. Storytellers have simply gotten their hands on all manner of techniques and talent that basically disguise the raw formula in endless and interesting ways. But it still there.



Game storytelling has gotten precisely nowhere in all this time because it does not function at the intrinsic level. Technology has nothing to do with it. As I said earlier, all artforms are scalable because their form is not budget-dependent, nor is it budget-emergent. Games are no different. In playing a great game such as "Once Upon a Time" (a card game quite literally about making stories up) the sum total of what the game form is is revealed: Pressure to play through taking turns in using the skill of imagination, a scenario of cards to be cleared from the hand, a mechanic of using keywords to discard cards, and a death threat of losing the game.



Sounds like storygaming, right? Of course it isn't. The "stories" told make utterly no sense because they are a tactical activity to try and win a game by discarding cards. A game of Civilisation is a representation of how you run a government rendered into a game, and Once Upon a Time is a representation of being a storyteller, also rendered into a game.



Confusing intrinsic issues with technology issues is just (yet more) wishful thinking. It's simply saying that the Techno-Cthulhu will one day emerge to fulfil a wild fantasy of meaning through games. As I said with the Uncanny Valley example, it is nothing more than a faith-based position based on an un-challengeable assertion (I.e. "You don't know what tech might achieve some day. You can't disprove it.") Technically true. And yet utter rubbish at the same time.



Day one, point one, game storytelling falls over because a game is telling a story as much as a building is narrating an epic or a song is flying an aeroplane. Redefining the problem does not solve it, it just solves a different problem. Playing word games with theory doesn't solve it, it just makes for some interestign essays. Mistaking technique and form doesn't solve it, it just dodges the issue. Spending lots of money doesn't solve it because Techno-Cthulhu doesn't exist.



Stitching "story" to "game" has been one long giant waste of time. It does not and will never produce anything other that unsatisfying results. Ditching worries over "story" and focusing instead on writing and designing to create playable worlds is what works, what has always worked, what scales and what, ultimately, players are actually showing up to do.

Ernest Adams
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Sorry, you've started twisting your definitions around to fit your thesis, and your thesis is subjective in any case. You give a strong impression of not having read many modern stories. Have you read the New Yorker lately? Many of those stories DO NOT HAVE ARCS. Period. They set a scene, establish character, create a mood, and stop. Not everything in Marquez is an arc. Ditto in Steinbeck's Cannery Row. Some of his vignettes are left open. They don't have a beginning, middle, and end. Period. (Now you'll tell me they aren't stories. Tautological reasoning gets you nowhere.)



"It does not and will never produce anything other that unsatisfying results." Correction: unsatisfying TO YOU. It is an incontrovertible fact that many games ALREADY produce story-like experiences that are satisfying to many players. Half-Life did. Monkey Island did. Undoubtedly you hated them because they didn't conform to whatever notion you have of what a story is supposed to be like. Your opinion represents one single data point. Big deal.



Interactive storytelling is a fact, not a theory. It may never be good enough for you, but it's good enough for plenty of other people. You sound like a guy sitting by a swimming pool shouting at everyone splashing around and having a good time that they're not Olympic champions and they're wasting their time. But they're the ones enjoying the pool and you aren't.

Tadhg Kelly
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@Ernest Adams



No Ernest, I simply elaborated upon it. All of this is a pretty ordinary understanding of storytelling, how it is structured it and so on. As a fairly straightforward read on the subject I'd point you at Robert Mckee's "Story" which does a better job of breaking it down than I am likely to do here in a web forum.



I've not read much Steinbeck (to my shame), but another example of the interrupted arc as you describe is various of the shorts in James Joyce's "Dubliners" and they are so by design. Are they "stories"? Not exactly. They are the story equivalent of free jazz, the deliberate anti-plot.



I discussed that at length already. Such intellectual and artistic experiments are very valuable down through the years because they increase the language of technique. And yet despite that, stories still are beginning-middle-end in nature. While Joyce had an artistic purposes to make with some of his pieces anti-plot, Joycean techniques have appeared in the stories of many other writers who use the arc. And Joyce's last and most famous story in Dubliners, "The Dead", is a full story arc. He didn't change the form of the story through his work, he provided more and better techniques for using the form.



..."It does not and will never produce anything other that unsatisfying results." Correction: unsatisfying TO YOU. It is an incontrovertible fact that many games ALREADY produce story-like experiences that are satisfying to many players. Half-Life did. Monkey Island did. Undoubtedly you hated them because they didn't conform to whatever notion you have of what a story is supposed to be like. Your opinion represents one single data point. Big deal...



Unsatisfying full stop. Is ad hominem attacking really the best you can do?



I said it earlier, several times, and there has not as yet been anything like a decent answer to this point: There are NO great game stories. That is an objective, citeable fact.



And it's why you've worked overtime to argue the sematics of arc and story, because your only solution seems to be try to redefine the problem. But it's a false legitimacy. 30 years and a million videogames have fairly conclusively proven that games and stories don't produce great results, and it's my opinion of that fact that clinging to the "story" mast is one of the key reasons why the intellectual and artistic community of game developers has serious problems with establishing its own language and legitimacy.



Take Half Life, for example.



Half Life is a great game. Half Life creates a great deal of game pressure and few games before or since have done as good a job of placing you in a scenario (Valve seem especially good at this, I should note. Portal and Left 4 Dead are also great for it). Half Life sets a gold standard for taking you into a world.



Half Life is not, however, great storytelling. One of the hallmarks of the game (and also Portal and Left 4 Dead) is how the game serves up its little segments of dialogue etc alongside the player's actions rather than governing it. You walk up to two scientists talking ominously about power surges. You get what it means straight away. You can walk away from them and go do something else, come back. The game deliberately treats its "narrative" (if you can call it that) as a disposable thing.



Unlike a story arc, the game is not posing a question and quest that you feel a need to solve through an inherent personal relationship, as a hero does in a tale. Gordon Freeman is a blank slate. All you know about yourself in the game is that apparently your name is Gordon. As a player, this is exactly as much information as is ever going to matter to you because you are not roleplaying Gordon, you are wearing Gordon as a suit of clothes. If you play the game dead straight or as an asshat, it doesn't especially matter to the story because there is no story.



This is why, in Red Dead Redemption, John Marston's - I have since remembered his name - character arc backdrop stuff is tedious. It's of no relevance to playing, and you can go just as quickly from hearing about your lonesome life of bad turned good and then immediately start riding around town lasso-ing strangers for giggles. It's not the power of interactive storytelling at work here. It's just a disconnect between story-time and play-time. Half Life chooses play-time.



The Half Life scenario is also immediately obvious. You can sense from the moment of walking into Black Mesa that things are going to go bad. The only question is how, and what will you do afterward, and when do you get to catch the guy in the suit? And what plot points get you there? None. You just do a series of missions instead, and they all fall into two types: 1. Kill this thing or 2. Open that door.



And the question that most governs that is whether the encounters and gameplay in those missions will stay interesting. One of the things about Half Life is that while the first half of the game is very tense and exciting, the latter end of the game is far too long. Lots of players playing it have never completed it, nor ever even got to the Zen levels. The reason is because the challenge tasks of the scenario start to get too repetitive.



Players hit a ceiling where the game stops extending in ever more interesting patterns and instead starts using gimmicky platforming sections like that bit with the rail carts. Half Life 2 almost did the same with its overly long and annoying driving sections. As a game, Half Life just starts to get tired long before Gordon meets the suit, and so the player just stops playing.



That doesn't speak well to its status as an example of great storytelling. If it were great storytelling then the narrative would be propelling the player forward. He would care, he would relate. He wouldn't consider the whole thing to be a skill challenge, which is what he actually does. It indicates that, unlike a great story such as a great book or film, the players are treating the game as a world of challenge or fun that is emotionally engaging to point, but when the mechanics seem to have run out of steam it hits a boredom threshold, and then they leave.



On Monkey Island...



For my sins, I cannot answer well about Monkey Island because I never played it. I've recently bought it but haven't gotten around to it, but my guess is that like many amusing adventure games it will essentially have on/off states where the humour will dry up after failing to solve a puzzle a few times in a row. Grim Fandango was very like that.



...Interactive storytelling is a fact, not a theory. It may never be good enough for you, but it's good enough for plenty of other people. You sound like a guy sitting by a swimming pool shouting at everyone splashing around and having a good time that they're not Olympic champions and they're wasting their time. But they're the ones enjoying the pool and you aren't...



"Interactive storytelling" is an aspiration, not a fact.



The fact is that it doesn't really work though, that after X many years we are not looking at a library of great game story after great game story, but instead great game after great game. While aspirations are all well and good, what players are actually interested in is the where and the challenge of what they are doing, not the why. After many years of trying, game stories are still no more compelling that the relatively simple scenario of Jet Set Willy, and when they try to be they simply get in the way the experience rather than enhancing it.



All that being said, however, I do think that this is becoming a perspectives debate rather than a diametric one. Because, ultimately, we both agree that Half Life is a great game. And no doubt wish for more developers to make games that draw us in as Half Life did. This makes me think that actually there is more commonality than the tone and length of the debate might otherwise indicate.



Where we used to call that "storytelling" because the medium was young and needed some terms to get understanding started, I think "worldmaking" is a more appropriate view. As I said already, game writing is very valuable but it can only truly grow when it ditches that early trope of storytelling. Great game writing shares a lot more in common with copywriting for advertising posters in that it's an asset-based activity that the user soaks in by exposure rather than served to them via a story that dominates their attention.

Vin St John
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@Tad

I think you're making a lot of well-reasoned points. I don't even think that I disagree with your conclusion. I think the more accurate way to describe the difference between your thoughts is that I don't think the distinction between "storytelling" and "worldmaking" is worth making. (Going into this, please understand that I realize that words can and should have stable definitions in order to have concrete meaning.) I think what we're doing is debating the validity of calling this particular "thing" that works can do "storytelling." We agree that a game designer can craft a world which contains narrative elements that help enhance the experience somehow. We also agree that games like Chess or Starcraft can play out in such a way that the series of events that occurred is interesting. Much like in life, we can look back on these series of events and find within them that narrative structure of the arc, even though the events were not pre-constructed to fit that arc and likely contain many elements that don't specifically contribute to it.



Now I, for one, am willing to call a game designer's clever arrangement of game-like elements (their world-making, as you refer to it), performed in such a way that it encourages and allows for events that form into these interesting stories, "storytelling." I agree that it is decidedly different from almost anything else that we call storytelling, so I understand the argument to call it something different. Perhaps the main reason I disagree with you is that "storytelling" still seems like a closer-to-perfect word for it than "worldmaking" does, although I see the merits of that term as well.



I also disagree that games haven't moved forward at all in terms of their ability to tell a story. I think the way that games differ from explicit, arc-driven storytelling can be very similar to the way "a painting can tell a story" - I disagree strongly with anyone who suggests that a single painted image has an inherent story arc, but I do believe that any story I infer from my view world of the painting (perhaps that painter is a worldmaker?) has been *told* to me by that painting, in some way. I don't think this story can ever be as complex or rigid as a story told in a medium more suited to storytelling, such as as a novel, but I'm okay with that because I appreciate that storytelling is only one aspect of what I enjoy about paintings. I appreciate that sometimes conceits are made in one area to focus on another, but I think that the same medium is capable of supporting both. I don't think games can ever be as good at telling the sorts of stories movies tell as movies are, but I do think that I enjoyed Final Fantasy VII's awful, cliche story much more as a direct result of the fact that in a way almost completely disconnected from that story, I influenced and controlled the actions of those characters. I infer and project the relationships between these aspects of the game and my mind switches gears without thinking about it when the game is fun.



Perhaps the strongest point I agree with you on - a conclusion I almost arrived at in that last paragraph - is that sometimes we say we enjoyed a game for the story, but rarely (never?) do we say we enjoyed a story for the game. I sometimes say something that is equivalent to this about narrative games - sometimes I feel the repetitive grind in some Final Fantasy games is only worth it for what is admittedly a pretty lame story (but one I enjoy nonetheless). In these cases I might say that the story is made more engaging by my attachment to the characters brought on in gameplay - but ultimately I would say that I liked that game for its story. It seems sort of an odd contradiction.



To me it seems that it is difficult to take these things as separate elements, and that if anything the fairest thing might be to say that "video games" really = "wibblewobbles" and that "wibblewobbles" are fusion of different elements including audio, video, story, and game.

Michael Grattan
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@Tadhg Kelly



"it's my opinion of that fact that clinging to the "story" mast is one of the key reasons why the intellectual and artistic community of game developers has serious problems with establishing its own language and legitimacy. "



---



Although my experience as a game designer thus far has been limited to academic projects and internships, and is only beginning to extend into the professional world of gave development, I wanted to at least comment.



I am attracted to this opinion of yours because of the headbutting nature of story vs. play. "Storytelling" is just that - the telling of a story. Not the suggesting of a story or creation of a story. How then can games provide meaningful choices that influence the core narrative? It seems the answer to this question really is that they can't. Either the narrative is manipulated in a way that makes its immutability less obvious to the player (the same type of re-definition Mr. Kelly discusses), or the game is sprinkled with "world flavor" such as the side dialogue in HL2 which only creates the illusion of a more immersive story by livening the play space. Or for many linear games, such as God of War, this is desired.



In any case, the player is destined to see all or a subset of the predetermined story being fed. The required presence of action and choice, therefore, causes a schism between "story" and play. Not that I have a problem with this. Games like Dragon Age, in my opinion, do a great job of telling me a story I am interested in to the point where I don't resent having so many cut scenes for dialogue. However, the point upon which I agree with Mr. Kelly is that it is not unreasonable (and perhaps favorable) to break free from the mental attachment to "storytelling" and to attempt to rethink newer methods of incorporating narrative elements in games that are specific to our industry and prevent the disjunct between game writing and functional design.



That said, I am humored at Vin StJohn's last statement, and agree that often when designers use the term "storytelling" they are referring typically to a variety of methods which are used to inject narrative into the game on a level of personal connection with the player (psst....hey...that npc guy is sneaking around that building, maybe they are trying to take down the designers who put him here!).



=)

Tadhg Kelly
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@ Vin StJohn



...I think the more accurate way to describe the difference between your thoughts is that I don't think the distinction between "storytelling" and "worldmaking" is worth making...



I think there is, because the one key difference between the two is worrying about context. In the storyteller perspective, the player is the hero. In Darby's original article above, he's worried about the context of what he as John Marston is as a mass murderer, and how this undermines context.



Whereas if you think like a worldmaker, that context is unimportant because the concept of the hero is also unimportant. Worldmaking essentially posits that the player is going to do whatever a player is going to do. He's not a hero, he's a player playing a game in a virtual adventure park. Better to treat them as a morally blank entity rather than ascribe fake motivations and unwanted tropes that never work.



That's also why I think then reaching for "storytelling" as a metaphor is just a crutch. If the world is set up correctly then what is the need to rationalise this experience as "story"? What purpose does it serve?



...I think the way that games differ from explicit, arc-driven storytelling can be very similar to the way "a painting can tell a story...



No, again, you're doing that conflation thing where "story" has many everyday uses, and then trying to applying the "storytelling" version to all versions. A picture may indeed, as they say, be better than a thousand words but the essence of a picture is portraiture. A picture is not in itself a storytelling-story. Sequential art, on the other hand (comics, hieroglyphics) IS a storytelling-story.



It's very easy to get wrapped in this conflating muddle, which is why I'm hammering so hard on it and hounding Ernest over this issue of whether storytelling-stories are all dramatic arcs (short answer: yes they are). The muddle creates all sorts of confusion.



A great game may indeed produce all manner of "dramatic" moments but they are not "Dramatic" moments. "Dramatic" is another word that is wilfully conflated for the purposes of 'proving' game stories exist, but it has two meanings. There is "dramatic" meaning tense conflict in real life of the sort that might be replicated in a story somewhere. If I have a friend who's prone to causing chaos around him, it might be said that he is "dramatic" or prone to drama.



Then there is "dramatic" meaning 'of the drama produced by a storyteller telling a tightly crafted story'. That drama is a presented crescendo or development of events of a plot within a story. It is highly structured and artificial.



I think in talking about Starcraft you are describing dramatic occurrences of the first kind (i.e. the game gets pretty hectic sometimes) and conflating them with the second kind (drama produced in artifice on the stage) and muddling them up. They're very different.

John Mawhorter
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I agree Tadhg. When people say games let people make their own stories, what they really mean is that players actions are dramatic in the "real-life" way and that they can later be told back as stories. Games happen in the present tense, stories are told in the past tense. You cannot experience life as if it were a story while it is still happening to you, and games are more like normal, everyday lived life than any other art form.

John Mawhorter
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@ Tadhg



I would say that your arguments are right, but that given the state of games today, you can't ignore that the audience seems to like "entertainment software products which combine game and linear, cut-scene-driven storytelling segments" an awful lot. I think you are right about the need to advance the art of game creation by ignoring the tastes of such an audience, but I don't think you can argue that everyone in the game industry has it wrong when they produce these things. Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption, etc. are all selling very well, and probably better than they would without the cinematic story elements tacked on.



Also you seem to like Half-life for it's world atmosphere (which I agree with), but can you not see how what Half-life does with scripted sequences is no different (in relation to your definition of game) than a cutscene? When a scripted sequence occurs in Half-life (e.g. the very first tram-ride, etc.) the player is forced to stop playing and observe, essentially. Now they may have control over the camera, but what you get here is a very real sense of editing and linear presentation (tram ride being a great example). I would also argue that your putting an awful lot of freedom in the hands of the player which doesn't exist. Designer's have come up with many clever tricks for manipulating the player and creating a pacing to a level or making sure they look in certain directions, etc. etc. It's kind of like saying that someone reading a book is free to ignore the plot the author is devising because books and words can have multiple meanings, when we all agree (having read it) that despite the truth of the first statement, we get a roughly similar experience from reading the same book.

John Mawhorter
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I also think that players are good at ignoring the logical break between what occurs in the cut scene segments and what actually happens in-game. They don't see the story of GTA as the story of a man who murdered thousands of people in between becoming the criminal kingpin of Liberty City... they would tell anyone who asked the story of GTA by omitting almost everything they had done outside of story missions when telling it. I feel that very often, the game segments add flavor to the story in these types of "games" rather than the other way around.

Tadhg Kelly
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@Pallav Nawani

"Minimalism" sounds more like hardcore ludology, of the "Tetris is the perfect game" sort of mentality. "Tetrism" if you like.



I think what I'm describing is more like "Inceptionism" in saying that while playing a game, it is capable of conveying an idea and feeling of a world without directly saying so.



Perhaps that's being a bit too clever.

Tadhg Kelly
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@John Mawhorter



...I would say that your arguments are right, but that given the state of games today, you can't ignore that the audience seems to like "entertainment software products which combine game and linear, cut-scene-driven storytelling segments" an awful lot...



I take your point, but that very much depends on why they're playing, whether they are bothering to finish games, and just how susceptible that audience is to marketing and crowd behaviour.



The first is something that no single forum post can cover, but I personally believe that one of the key indicators of the true value of a game is just how quickly it lands on discount in retail stores, in second hand piles, and on eBay. I don't know about you, but any story that I've ever bought which I truly loved (Watchmen graphic novel, the Godfather, etc) is not one that I have bought and sold quickly.



Do players finish games? Not according to these metrics from Microsoft: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4171/staying_power_rethinki
ng_feedback_.php Notice that 70% of polled respondents never finished GTA4, according to Table 2. GTA4 has some of the best-written cut scenes in video games, and yet players are just not hanging in there. This suggests that players don't care enough. Again, with other kinds of beloved stories, that is not the case.



Lastly there is market behaviour. I think that because video game publishers still sell to a young audience for the most part that they have acquired many of the same mass market behaviours as pop music. Anyone over the age of 25 realises that pop music in bombastic, that Lady Gaga is an insubstantial fake, and that tracks like "Telephone" are just being sold on the video. They are, in essence, television pretending to be music. I think big sizzle video games do much the same thing, and they're why E3, PR and sizzle are perceived as so important.



As with most "sizzle"-oriented products, the experience post-purchase is often far less interesting than pre-sizzle. Most game publishers heavily rely on what Hollywood calls smash-and-grab tactics to sell huge volume before word of mouth is established and price elasticity starts to take hold.



I'm not sure that that is a complete answer, but that's my sense of it anyway.



...Also you seem to like Half-life for it's world atmosphere (which I agree with), but can you not see how what Half-life does with scripted sequences is no different (in relation to your definition of game) than a cutscene?...



It is a bit different in so far as the game is allowing that sequence to run alongside rather than taking over the camera, but I take your point. I think it works for the intro to the game (the first time you play it anyway, afterward not so much). Half Life 2 has some more heavy handed examples of the same thing where the game all but stops and keeps you in a room so it can talk at you, and it's ridiculous.



Left 4 Dead, on the other hand, does it right. The game never stops and relies entirely on alongside sequences and music etc to convey its world. Portal likewise (I think, it's been a while since I last played it).



...I would also argue that your putting an awful lot of freedom in the hands of the player which doesn't exist. Designer's have come up with many clever tricks for manipulating the player and creating a pacing to a level or making sure they look in certain directions, etc. etc. It's kind of like saying that someone reading a book is free to ignore the plot the author is devising because books and words can have multiple meanings, when we all agree (having read it) that despite the truth of the first statement, we get a roughly similar experience from reading the same book...



I don't think there's *that* many tricks really. It tends to come down to waves of enemies, locked doors and signs/lighting balancing to lead the way. But beyond that, player freedom is all over the place. While I get what you're saying about the book, I think with games every part of the successful game has to fulfil a portraiture rather than contextual role because players will play and do what they do and there's not a whole lot you can do as a designer to make them play in other ways.

Ernest Adams
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I said nothing ad hominem at all; what I said was that your subjective opinion represents only one data point.



If someone is prepared to characterize the statement "There are NO great game stories" as an "objective, citeable fact" there's really no point in further discussion.

Darby McDevitt
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Ah Hm. Well, its nice to see so much discussion bubbling here ... apologies to Tadhg (and everyone else) for my prickly, often haughty tone over the course of my last posts. It's infuriating to feel one's opinions and ideas are being mishandled or misheard, but inexcusable to stoop to holier than though posturing. The battle continues.



That said, everyone should watch Chris Marker's films. They're great.

Darby McDevitt
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A few mild points here:



First, I’d like to posit that you automatically trigger Godwin’s law by suggesting that one of us will use it. Huzzah! Point, me.



I was half joking about Ulysses, just for kicks. I’ll grant you it is one of the greatest books ever written – I make a habit of returning to it every few years. But deciding whether or not it is a novel seems a pointless exercise in the long run (I happen to see it as it’s a long narrative poem). Joyce’s book is classically structured in some ways, and willfully dismissive of that structure in others. And I’d probably go as far as saying that the places where it does stick to Aristotle’s poetics are merely parodies of the Greek ideal. But it contains them nevertheless.



Now, we’ve been talking a lot about Aristotle -- assuming he is the primary the source for your concept of Greek Arc, we should probably have look at his theories in specific. You wrote “What Aristotle and other theorists of the base form of stories talk about is not the overt content…or gender interpretation,… nor a study of mythology vs story… They are discussing fundamentals.” But is this true? Is Aristotle not concerned about content? Why then did he formulate an explicit list about the character types a proper dramatist should include in his work? Why did he make a list the sort of plots a proper tragedy should NOT include (ie. “one should never conclude with a good man failing” or “one should never conclude with a wicked man succeeding”). Yes this sounds like Content at first blush, but his reasoning for these exclusions are purely formal – as in, they do not elicit the “proper response” from audiences.



Let’s keep going: Events must be causally linked in a direct fashion; episodic content is the mark of an inferior plot (Ulysses fails this one big time); Tragedy is Drama (happenings) not Narrative (explanations); A proper dramatic arc must occur within a unified time, place, and with unified action (Ulysses fails the last one); Characters must be subservient to events (Ulysses fails again); there can be no “accidental actions” i.e. character cannot act “on a whim”. etc. etc.



Reading over his theories again for the first time in many years, I am struck firstly by the clear pedagogical purpose of these formulations. While specific features of his theories have an intuitive appeal, they do seem to serve a cultural function more than anything. They serve to “build a better man” in the rational Greek sense… (also interesting, look up some of the traditional Japanese forms of narrative and compare them with the Greeks… some similarities, some differences).



I am of the “Form IS Content” camp, to a large degree. It’s been said in many different ways, but I like Ben Shahn’s “The Shape of Content” best. If I had more time right now, I would address your comments on poetic form v. content, but I’m a little rushed… maybe later. But to be quick about it, it is easy enough to conceive of a situation in poetry where the artist makes a novel formal decision based on the content of the work, and vice versa. It is a two way street. (As an aside, recall Joyce’s contention that Shakespeare was not a dramatist at all, but a poet disguising his poetry as theater. Ibsen was the true dramatist. Ulysses it seems, is an attempt to fuse the two.)



Part of the confusing stirred up by my article is the fact that I chose three “Hollywoodized” game stories as my leading examples, and it seems you have taken this to mean my purpose was to revitalize THIS form. That’s not quite right, though I would at that I don’t MIND this form.



But my first objection was not to the shape of their arc … it was to the role that the content of the gameplay played in the narrative. So yes, the first part of my argument contained a mild defense of games with a classical arc, and a repudiation of the “narrative content of the mechanics” (scads of killing). From this POV, the easiest way to fix Red Dead Redemption, assuming you wanted to keep all the gameplay intact and still have a Hollywood style presentation, would have been to make it a story about an amoral mass-murdering maniac. This way the story and gameplay would have meshed (not in a way you like, I’ll grant, but at least in a way that would make the game content match the narrative content.) This wouldn’t satisfy your objections, but it would give the game a better internal consistency.



You attempted a little gotcha moment by quoting me talking about one of my narrative arcs getting destroyed after a wanton redesign of a recent game I worked on, but all this really proves is that sometimes, as an employee of a game studio, I have to work on games with structures I don’t necessarily endorse. In this case I proposed five separate, ultra spare narrative “movements” and gave the clients a choice… they picked three and asked me to combine them into one. When I objected that the story would be too laden with cinematics and pointless exposition, they countered with “it’ll be boring if we don’t beef up the story.” So with that, I was set on a path to write a far more traditional tale… and a brittle one at that, far too dependant on its arc to be of much interest to me. But it’s not my job to complain…. I do the best I can with what I’ve been given. The Story I wanted to write originally would have sprung from the gameplay itself… but of course….



We keep going back and forth about this “Story” definition… and so long as we make no attempts to inhabit an opposing perspective, if only to humor on another, we will get nowhere. Most of us here are talking about “Story” in the broadest sense – the sense that Hemmingway meant when he wrote what he contended was the shortest story in the world:



“For sale, babies shoes. Never worn”.



This, I suspect, is what most of us mean when we refer to a minimalist story. “Story” runs the gamut. I understand your object to this definition, but for the moment, pretend it is valid and then apply it to the games we have talked about here. In this sense, I certainly disagree that there are NO good game stories. I think there are plenty of them already. “The Last Express” ranks near the top of the “classically arc’d” games, while “Braid” and “Shadow of the Colossus” are a few of my favorite minimalist game-stories. I realize you may have an objection to characterizing the former as a “game” (you earlier dismissed adventure games as having “fatal flaws”) and might criticize the latter two as having bifurcated sensibilities… and to some degree I would agree. And on the other hand, I wouldn’t say it matters much. Here’s why…



I’ve been reading a decent amount of Jasper Juul’s writing on this subject over the past month, and I like his description of Games and Narrative both as Transmedial modes – transmedial meaning simply, that both are not mediums in and of themselves, but modes of “discourse” that inhabit mediums. Games can operate in a number of mediums… you can create visual games, textural games, number games, etc. Narratives work the same way… I like this formulation, and you may too.



So, if we accept this, it follows that a narrative cannot be translated directly into gamplay – which you have been arguing all along, and I fully agree with. But this isn’t the end of the story. Let’s imagine three scenarios:



A) A blue sphere sits atop a grey cube. The grey cube pushes forward and collides with a yellow sphere. An incremental point counter in the corner of the screen goes up by one.

B) Nico Bellic gets into his grey mustang. He drives forward. He runs over a drug dealer. He earns 20000 dollars

C) A clown mounts a large elephant. The elephant walks forward and stomps on a sunflower. A rainbow shoots across the sky.



I have just described the same exact set of “game events” but I think most of us here would agree that these are 3 wildly different narratives. I say this knowing full well that you object already to my use of the term narrative. You would say “world”… fine, it hardly matters to me. But the point is that much “meaning” can be derived from these simple scenarios. And if you chain these meanings together you get a story in a minimalist sense… more on this later, perhaps. My laundry is done.



Lastly, you misunderstand my point of this paragraph here:



"Building further on this tantalizing synthesis between narrative and mechanics will require a lot of difficult, dedicated thought by people willing to look outside the game industry's established clichés for inspiration, and it will take a good deal of experimentation and a lot of failures to develop mechanics that provide new experiences in novel contexts."



--That sounds like "money" to me.



It does refer to money, but not the way you formulated it. I have no belief that better AI, better graphics, faster processors, etc… will lead to better stories. Only that a more imaginative, representational application of existing mechanics will lead to more interesting minimalist stories told through gameplay – Chibi Robo’s housecleaning mechanics, Katamari Damacy’s “rolling mechanic”, Braids rewind mechanic … none of these is an expensive game. So the above paragraph was really just a kind way of saying “Hey game industry, why not take a few more risks on unorthodox ideas. Spend less money on cliché’s and more on games with heart and deeper emotional content.”



Is that clearer?

Tadhg Kelly
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@ Darby McDevitt



Thanks for the apology. Likewise, if I made you feel prickly, it's not my intent.



...First, I’d like to posit that you automatically trigger Godwin’s law by suggesting that one of us will use it. Huzzah! Point, me...



Indeed :)



...Is Aristotle not concerned about content? Why then did he formulate an explicit list about the character types a proper dramatist should include in his work? Why did he make a list the sort of plots a proper tragedy should NOT include (ie. “one should never conclude with a good man failing” or “one should never conclude with a wicked man succeeding”). Yes this sounds like Content at first blush, but his reasoning for these exclusions are purely formal – as in, they do not elicit the “proper response” from audiences...



Yes, that is part of the discussion of form too. You have archetypal roles, your story-to-audience payoffs and so forth.



...Let’s keep going: Events must be causally linked in a direct fashion; episodic content is the mark of an inferior plot (Ulysses fails this one big time). Tragedy is Drama (happenings) not Narrative (explanations); A proper dramatic arc must occur within a unified time, place, and with unified action (Ulysses fails the last one); Characters must be subservient to events (Ulysses fails again); there can be no “accidental actions” i.e. character cannot act “on a whim”. etc.....



Not quite. Remembering that Aristotle wrote at a time when much shorter forms were the norm, this makes sense. In the modern era (since the invention of the novel) stories have gotten much longer, and it is common to see interweaved and associated plot arcs within one work. With Ulysses, there are several arcs rippling through individual chapters, segments and the whole novel. The convention of plotting remains, but the sophistication with which it is sometimes applied has radically changed since the Greek days. An individual chapter or section of a book might often be viewed as a dramatic unit (in the Aristotlean sense) and certainly in Joyce that is the case.



This is essentially the same discussion that I had with Ernest over TV series and A,B, and C plots, layered arcs of 100 Hundred Years of Solitude, and so on.



...Reading over his theories again for the first time in many years, I am struck firstly by the clear pedagogical purpose of these formulations. While specific features of his theories have an intuitive appeal, they do seem to serve a cultural function more than anything. They serve to “build a better man” in the rational Greek sense… (also interesting, look up some of the traditional Japanese forms of narrative and compare them with the Greeks… some similarities, some differences)...



And yet the ones that cross cultural divides tend to have the same structure. The story of Gilgamesh or Beowulf are very old, but we still understand them as they are because they use that universal form. Similarly today, you can watch a film like Crouching Tiger and, even though it is made half way around the world, identify its inherent form, plot, and so forth easily. It is through such examples that various people (like Campbell) posit that all stories are either the same, or very similar.



The argument over whether Aristotle's specific take on it is coloured as much by his own politics is a possible one. To be fair though, those aspects of his opinions have tended to fall by the wayside. Much as we forget that Newton was also keenly interested in black magic as in gravity, time has a way of stripping away the irrelevancies.



...I am of the “Form IS Content” camp, to a large degree. It’s been said in many different ways, but I like Ben Shahn’s “The Shape of Content” best. If I had more time right now, I would address your comments on poetic form v. content, but I’m a little rushed… maybe later. But to be quick about it, it is easy enough to conceive of a situation in poetry where the artist makes a novel formal decision based on the content of the work, and vice versa. It is a two way street. (As an aside, recall Joyce’s contention that Shakespeare was not a dramatist at all, but a poet disguising his poetry as theater. Ibsen was the true dramatist. Ulysses it seems, is an attempt to fuse the two.)...



Sort of.



It's more of a hard-rules/soft-rules separation. For example, the idea that plot points in movies must happen on page 23 is a soft rule, whereas the idea that a film plot needs acts is a hard rule. Often, when an artist achieves something tangibly different, it is because they have broken a soft rule. In film 30 years ago jump-cutting (where you cut within a scene in a deliberately skipping fashion) would probably have been regarded as a no-no, but a variety of film-makers have shown that - with judicious use - it is actually fine.



On the other hand, the hard rules of acts and plots, conflict, archetypal characters and so on are alive and well.



There is also the much-discussed area of the deliberate anti-plot. So in this example, the writer is intentionally creating a clashy, non-sequential piece of writing which challenges our assumptions. Such works are, for the most part, intellectual rather than emotional (lacking an arc, there's something that readers can't quite get into). It occasionally produces works that subsequently introduce some new techniques to the main form. Often it produces masturbatory nonsense.



...But my first objection was not to the shape of their arc … it was to the role that the content of the gameplay played in the narrative. So yes, the first part of my argument contained a mild defense of games with a classical arc, and a repudiation of the “narrative content of the mechanics” (scads of killing). From this POV, the easiest way to fix Red Dead Redemption, assuming you wanted to keep all the gameplay intact and still have a Hollywood style presentation, would have been to make it a story about an amoral mass-murdering maniac. This way the story and gameplay would have meshed (not in a way you like, I’ll grant, but at least in a way that would make the game content match the narrative content.) This wouldn’t satisfy your objections, but it would give the game a better internal consistency...



I'd argue that that wouldn't be a fix at all. There aren't many stories about mass murderers where the mass murderer is the hero, especially if he has no redemptive/heroic aspect. In stories, identification with the hero or heroes (in the dramatic sense, not necessarily the "good guy" sense) is important.



My contention was that, in a game, the relationship is different because the player's character is not a character (again in the dramatic sense) but instead a doll, or an extension of their arm. The context doesn't matter because the player does not need to empathise with himself in order to play.



...We keep going back and forth about this “Story” definition… and so long as we make no attempts to inhabit an opposing perspective, if only to humor on another, we will get nowhere. Most of us here are talking about “Story” in the broadest sense – the sense that Hemmingway meant when he wrote what he contended was the shortest story in the world:



“For sale, babies shoes. Never worn”...



Yeah, but, actually, that's not what most of you are talking about. Hemmingway's 6 words are a "story" only in so far as Hemmingway says they are. They're not a story in the sense of a dramatic tale though. In those terms, what Hemmingway has actually written is a poetic image.



If you were playing a detective game and you came across that in classified ads while looking for clues on a mission, it would be an image that would serve as a part of the portraiture of the world. "It's there, it's sad, deal with it" is what the game says. A lot of what I was describing as the function of the writer in a worldmaking scenario is creating just such portraiture.



However what you are talking about is somehow getting heroic arcs in to that mix, and trying to find a way to squeeze Hemmingway's image and other more applicable examples in as a part of a definition, in order to justify all the rest. The issue I had is not how wide or encompassing the use of the word "story" is. It's about trying to apply the conventions of "storytelling" across all of them, as though they are all the same thing. That's the confusion.



However, going back to Hemmingway again, it too can be placed anywhere sans context. It does not need a hero. You do not need to worry about whether the gameplay is at fundamental odds with the image because you are not trying to tell the player/reader that they are the hero. "For sale, baby shoes. Never worn." is an asset. It could be deployed anywhere, as the sequential context doesn't matter.



However your example of the story being put in the game shows all sorts of problems, as you correctly identify.



...This, I suspect, is what most of us mean when we refer to a minimalist story. “Story” runs the gamut. I understand your object to this definition, but for the moment, pretend it is valid and then apply it to the games we have talked about here...



I can't do that because it's not real.



All it's enabling you to do is rationalise any great game that you've liked as "stories" and so it becomes the same circular argument that we've been talking through already. It contains a perfectly internally consistent rationale that has nothing at all to do with the real world, with an essentially 100% unchallengeable framework. If you can essentially define anything at all as story then (as I argued earlier about the logical implications of this position, which you've never really responded to directly) story is nothing.



The problem with endless fungibility of terms is, as demonstrated repeatedly, they just lead to non-positions. Like the Douglas Adams joke about Man proving that black equals white and then dying on a zebra crossing, or Ernest veering into the "For YOU" defense (which is a personal, not a rational defense), or your own assertion that because Limbo's game content is styled differently to Mario that it is also a different form of game (Which is - with apologies - a bit ridiculous), these defences only show a paucity of counter argument.



Meanwhile, he said banging his drum, there aren't any good game stories.



Thus, fungibility is fun but ultimately useless in progressing the debate. The difference in my position is that I'm striving to be non-fungible. I suspect that 100% non-fungiblity is impossible, but my approach is to be as clear and straightforward as possible. Rather than allowing the mangling of terms to permit all arguments to exist for all men, I'm saying "no, hang on, you're just creating a zebra crossing argument".



...Let’s imagine three scenarios:



A) A blue sphere sits atop a grey cube. The grey cube pushes forward and collides with a yellow sphere. An incremental point counter in the corner of the screen goes up by one.

B) Nico Bellic gets into his grey mustang. He drives forward. He runs over a drug dealer. He earns 20000 dollars

C) A clown mounts a large elephant. The elephant walks forward and stomps on a sunflower. A rainbow shoots across the sky.



I have just described the same exact set of “game events” but I think most of us here would agree that these are 3 wildly different narratives. I say this knowing full well that you object already to my use of the term narrative. You would say “world”… fine, it hardly matters to me. But the point is that much “meaning” can be derived from these simple scenarios. And if you chain these meanings together you get a story in a minimalist sense… more on this later, perhaps. My laundry is done...



Except, as you say, I would identify none of those as narratives. They are actions that I do when I play.



How much meaning can be derived from an action? Very little. In all three examples, what I am physically doing is the same thing. If I'm idly doing them as a part of just wandering around the game world then they are of low intensity in my attention. I may feel a bit bad in and of myself for knocking over the drug dealer, I might not. That's all a part of who I am, my personality. Any meaning that there is is just a self-reflection on myself.



Worldmaking is, as I said before, much more like portraiture.



A portrait is not didactic. It does not reach out of the painting hit the viewer over the head, saying "Look, See, Feel". It is simply there, as is. How the viewer looks, sees and feels is entirely their own concern.



Similarly, a portrait does not control the user perspective outside of the frame of the picture. They look, they look away, all under their own direction. Again, like a game. If I am running over the drug dealer during a race mission, I may not even notice.



Finally, a portrait has no control over how long you look at it. Again, as in a game, if I stop and take in the landscape of Liberty City or if I treat as just a fun playground of no consequence, the game does not control that. All a game does control is the pressure of the game mechanics (good example, Canabalt).



Storytelling is didactic (bad storytelling is obviously so, good storytelling is much cleverer). Storytelling attempts to control the user perspective: In a movie theatre, or a theatre, there is only the screen or stage. And storytelling is sequential, attempting to control user time.



...---That sounds like "money" to me.



It does refer to money, but not the way you formulated it. I have no belief that better AI, better graphics, faster processors, etc… will lead to better stories. Only that a more imaginative, representational application of existing mechanics will lead to more interesting minimalist stories told through gameplay – Chibi Robo’s housecleaning mechanics, Katamari Damacy’s “rolling mechanic”, Braids rewind mechanic … none of these is an expensive game. So the above paragraph was really just a kind way of saying “Hey game industry, why not take a few more risks on unorthodox ideas. Spend less money on cliché’s and more on games with heart and deeper emotional content.”...



None of them are any closer to creating better storytelling in games either. I thoroughly agree that we should have more and better game mechanics and morer and betterer worlds to play in though.



...Is that clearer?...



Thanks, it is a good follow-up piece.


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